Edward Mills Purcell Biography


Birthday: August 30, 1912 (Virgo)

Born In: Taylorville, Illinois, United States

Edward Mills Purcell was a well-known American physicist. He shared the ‘Nobel Prize’ for Physics in 1952 with Felix Bloch, a Swiss physicist working mainly in the United States. They were awarded the ‘Nobel Prize’ for "their development of new ways and methods for nuclear magnetic precision measurements." Purcell is known in the science community for his independent discovery of nuclear magnetic resonance. Nuclear magnetic resonance (NMR) helps scientists determine the chemical structure and properties of materials with precision. NMR is also the basis of modern day magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) used as a non-invasive diagnostic tool to produce detailed images of organs and structures within the body. Purcell not only made significant contribution to physics but contributed to astronomy as well. He is also remembered by biologists for his famous lecture “Life at Low Reynolds Number” in which he explained a principle called the Scallop theorem. He was the first to question the CP symmetry of particle physics. Purcell received many awards during his lifetime for his scientific, educational, and civic work. He served as a science advisor to the U. S. Presidents Dwight D. Eisenhower, John F. Kennedy, and Lyndon B. Johnson.
Quick Facts

Also Known As: E. M. Purcell

Died At Age: 84


Spouse/Ex-: Beth C. Busser

children: Dennis, Frank

Physicists American Men

Died on: March 7, 1997

place of death: Cambridge, Massachusetts, United States

Grouping of People: Nobel Laureates in Physics

U.S. State: Illinois

discoveries/inventions: Nuclear Magnetic Resonance (NMR) Smith-Purcell Effect 21 Cm Line

More Facts

education: Purdue University, Harvard University

awards: Nobel Prize for Physics (1952)
Oersted Medal (1967)
National Medal of Science (1979)

Max Delbruck Prize (1984)
Beatrice M. Tinsley Prize (1988)

Childhood & Early Life
E.M. Purcell was born on August 30, 1912 in Taylorville, Illinois, U.S. His parents, Edward A. Purcell and Mary Elisabeth Mills, were both natives of Illinois.
He did his schooling in public schools in Taylorville and in Mattoon, Illinois and joined the ‘Purdue University’ in 1929.
He received his BSEE in electrical engineering from ‘Purdue University’, followed by his M.A. and Ph.D. in physics from ‘Harvard University’.
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Purcell worked as an instructor in physics for two years in Harvard after receiving his Ph.D. from the university.
Later, he joined the Radiation Laboratory, ‘Massachusetts Institute of Technology’. Here, he became Head of the Fundamental Developments Group in the Radiation Laboratory, which was concerned with the exploration of new frequency bands and the development of new microwave techniques.
After staying at Massachusetts during World War II years, he returned to Harvard to pursue research.
In December 1946, he discovered nuclear magnetic resonance (NMR) with his colleagues Robert Pound and Henry Torrey.
He received the ‘Nobel Prize’ in physics for his discovery of nuclear magnetic resonance in 1952.
Purcell also made significant contributions to astronomy as well. He was the first scientist to detect radio emissions from neutral galactic hydrogen, affording the first views of the spiral arms of the Milky Way. The field of radio astronomy was launched on the basis of this observation.
He made very important contributions to solid state physics with studies of spin-echo relaxation, nuclear magnetic relaxation, and negative spin temperature (important in the development of the laser).
With Norman F. Ramsey he was the first to question the CP symmetry, a conventional assumption that all particle forces are parity symmetric.
Purcell served as scientific advisor to Presidents Dwight D. Eisenhower, John F. Kennedy, and Lyndon B. Johnson.
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Major Works
Purcell discovered nuclear magnetic resonance in liquids and solids. NMR is widely used to study the molecular structure of pure materials and the composition of mixtures. It is widely used in physics and chemistry for determining the chemical structure and properties of materials. NMR also serves as the basis of magnetic resonance imaging (MRI), one of the most important medical advances of the 20th century.
He was the first to detect radio emissions from neutral galactic hydrogen, the famous 21 cm line due to hyperfine splitting. Measurements of the 21 cm line are still an important technique in modern astronomy.
Purcell was the author of the innovative introductory text ‘Electricity and Magnetism’. The book, a Sputnik-era project funded by an NSF grant, was influential for its use of relativity in the presentation of the subject at this level. The book has educated and inspired a generation of physicists.
Awards& Achievements
For his discovery of NMR, Purcell shared the 1952 Nobel Prize in physics with Felix Bloch, a Swiss physicist who was at the time working at the Stanford University.
While at the ‘Purdue University’, Purcell was a member of the Alpha Xi chapter of the ‘Phi Kappa Sigma Fraternity’. Later, he was also inducted into the Fraternity's Hall of Fame as the first Phi Kap ever to receive a Nobel Prize.
He was the president of the ‘’American Physical Society, and a member of the ‘American Philosophical Society’, the ‘National Academy of Sciences’, and the ‘American Academy of Arts and Sciences’.
In 1967, he won the Oersted Medal of the ‘American Association of Physics Teachers’.
He was awarded the National Medal of Science in 1979, and the Jansky Lectureship before the ‘National Radio Astronomy Observatory’.
Personal Life & Legacy
In 1937, Purcell married Beth C. Busser. They had two sons, Dennis and Frank.
He died on March 7, 1997.

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