Purcell, Edward Mills


Purcell, Edward Mills
▪ 1998

      American physicist (b. Aug. 30, 1912, Taylorville, Ill.—d. March 7, 1997, Cambridge, Mass.), shared the 1952 Nobel Prize for Physics with Felix Bloch for independently developing nuclear magnetic resonance (NMR), a method used to detect and measure the magnetic fields of atomic nuclei and a powerful tool for investigating molecular structures and chemical interactions. Purcell's work formed the basis of spectroscopic and imaging techniques with applications ranging from chemical analysis and radio astronomy to medical diagnosis. He studied electrical engineering as an undergraduate at Purdue University, West Lafayette, Ind., during which time he developed an interest in physics. After graduation (B.S., 1933) he spent a year at the Technische Hochschule in Karlsruhe, Ger., studying physics as an international exchange student. On returning to the United States, he enrolled at Harvard University, receiving a master's degree (1935) and doctorate (1938) in physics. Purcell, who spent most of his career at Harvard, served as an instructor there until 1941 and as a full professor from 1949 until his retirement in 1980. He took a brief leave of absence from the university during World War II, however, when he contributed to the war effort as a member of a research team investigating shortwave radar at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. He returned to Harvard in 1946 and soon thereafter developed NMR methodology for measuring magnetic fields in atomic nuclei. In 1951 Purcell applied the principles of this discovery to detecting the wavelengths of radiation emitted from neutral hydrogen clouds in space. His research proved useful to astronomers attempting to map galactic structures in the universe. Purcell wrote a number of classic books on microwaves, electricity, and magnetism, including Physics: For Science and Engineering Students (1952), which he coauthored, and Electricity and Magnetism (1965). He was elected to the National Academy of Sciences in 1951 and received the National Medal of Science from the National Science Foundation in 1978.

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