Dr. William A. Edelstein, MRI pioneer

William A. Edelstein

William A. Edelstein, a pioneer in the field of MRI who was also a professor in the radiology department at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, died Feb. 10 of lung cancer at his home in Original Northwood. He was 69.

The son of Arthur Edelstein, an optometrist, and Hannah Edelstein, a homemaker, William AlanEdelstein was born in Gloversville, N.Y., and raised in Schenectady and Utica, N.Y., and Northbrook, Ill., where he graduated in 1961 from Glenbrook High School.


He earned a bachelor's degree in physics in 1965 from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. He earned a master's in physics in 1967 and then his doctorate in physics, both from Harvard University.

"When he was in the Ph.D. program at Harvard, one of his highlights was transporting radioactive materials through Cambridge, either on his bicycle or in his thesis adviser's Rolls-Royce," said daughter Jean Hannah Edelstein of Brooklyn, N.Y.


Dr. Edelstein completed his thesis at Harvard under Robert Vivian Pound, who was the co-discoverer of nuclear magnetic resonance. He then traveled to Scotland, where he completed two three-year postdoctoral fellowships, at Glasgow University and the University of Aberdeen.

While at the University of Aberdeen, Dr. Edelstein and his team invented the first whole-body MRI scanning machine — in those days magnetic resonance imaging was called nuclear resonance imaging — and spin wrap imaging in 1980, which is an essential component of all MRI machines.

In 1980, Dr. Edelstein joined General Electric's corporate research and development in Schenectady to help GE develop and commercialize its MRI business.

His contributions at GE were numerous, including pulse sequence optimization, radio frequency and gradient coil design, MRI electronics, high-field imaging and acoustic noise reduction in MRI systems.

The small-imaging coil technology that Dr. Edelstein developed "made it possible to take detailed pictures of small body parts, like the eyeball," said a University of Illinois profile written when the university awarded him its 2013 Alumni Achievement Award.

After retiring from GE in 2001, he continued working in the MRI field through his company MRScience LLC. He also was a visiting professor at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute and was a senior research associate at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland.

"When they decided to change the name from NMR to MRI because of public worries over the word 'nuclear,' he mounted a protest and even had an 'NMR OK' vanity license plate," his daughter said.

"I hired him at Hopkins in 2007. Bill was always coming up with lots of ideas. He was a wonderful talent," said Paul A. Bottomley, director of MRI research at the Hopkins School of Medicine and a former GE colleague.


"What he was trying to do was make MRI quieter and faster. It was about patient comfort, and because of the blips, [MRIs] can be noisy," said Dr. Bottomley. "And does an MRI need to take upward of an hour?"

"The noise is brutally loud — often well over 100 decibels," Dr. Edelstein said in the University of Illinois profile. "Right now, people have to wear ear defenders, which is a problem. It puts people off and in some cases could pose a danger to their hearing.

"It's also a problem for functional MRI, where the scan is used to try to find activity in the brain, but the hearing part of the brain is already active. It's also a problem for functional MRI where a medical procedure is performed while imaging. And of course, the doctors have to wear ear protection too — it's really not good," he said.

Dr. Edelstein added: "Our goal is to bring the noise to 70 decibels or less, to a conversational level."

In addition to reducing noise levels during scans, he was, at his death, working to try to reduce scans to 10 minutes, rather than 45 to 60 minutes.

Dr. Edelstein wrote widely on magnetic resonance imaging and held numerous patents. In 1990, he was presented the Gold Medal Prize from the International Society of Magnetic Resonance in Medicine, and was awarded a Coolidge Fellowship the next year from GE.


He was popular with the students at Hopkins, Dr. Bottomley said.

"Bill would talk to everybody about their problems and would help them find solutions. He was very outgoing and stimulating, and with him, there were no restrictions where a conversation would go," he said.

"He was cool-headed, analytical, scientific and provoking," said Dr. Bottomley. "At seminars, he always sat in the front row and there were always questions from Bill. He fell asleep in one, and when it was over, he asked the speaker a question that went right to the heart of the matter. It unraveled the speaker."

In 2010, Dr. Edelstein and his son, Arthur Edelstein, a physicist who lives in Irvine, Calif., presented a paper before a meeting of the American Physical Society that upset "Star Trek" fans worldwide.

The father and son proved that people traveling in a spaceship at the speed of light, according to Albert Einstein's theory of relativity, would have died from radiation.

"So those traveling aboard 'Star Trek's' Starship Enterprise would have all died," said his daughter.


Dr. Edelstein enjoyed playing the recorder and guitar and listening to classical music. He was a reader and enjoyed traveling to Scotland, where he met his wife, the former Fiona Jones, an upstairs neighbor whom he married in 1977.

Services were private.

In addition to his wife, son and daughter, Dr. Edelstein is survived by another daughter, Elspeth Barras of Aberdeen, Scotland; a sister, Barbara Paulcheck of Wonder Lake, Ill.; and two grandsons.