Obituary: Irving J. Lowe / Physics pioneer, professor at Pitt

Jan. 4, 1929 - March 26, 2013

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Irving J. Lowe, a professor, scientist and outdoor enthusiast who made seminal advancements in the early development of nuclear magnetic resonance, died Tuesday in his Squirrel Hill home of chronic heart disease. He was 84.

Mr. Lowe's tenure with the University of Pittsburgh's department of physics and astronomy spanned five decades beginning in 1962. In the mid-1980s, he was invited, based on his achievements, to participate in the Pittsburgh NMR Center for Biomedical Research, a collaboration between Carnegie Mellon University and Pitt housed at the Mellon Institute at CMU.

"He was a very brilliant person in his field," said Chien Ho, the center's director. "He was an outstanding scientist with great vision."

The appointment was one among many scholarly milestones for the New England native whose family described him as having been a reluctant student until age 14. It was then, they said, that he reread a geometry book from a class he had struggled through a year earlier, and it sparked what became a lifelong dedication to mathematics and physics.

Mr. Lowe was born in Rhode Island in 1929 and raised mainly in Biddeford, Maine, his family said. After his father, Louis, a locksmith, and his mother, Frieda, a fabric store worker, divorced, he and his mother moved to Brooklyn.

She supported the family by becoming a dental hygienist and court stenographer, while Irving helped by working part-time jobs, his family said.

A full scholarship awarded to promising students by the Cooper Union for the Advancement of Science and Art made it possible for Mr. Lowe to receive a bachelor's degree in electrical engineering from the all-honors private college in New York City. In 1956, he received a doctoral degree in physics from Washington University in St. Louis.

While at Washington, he participated in the developing research area of nuclear magnetic resonance. NMR is a tool for the analysis of molecular structure, and later advances created a branch of the technology known as magnetic resonance imaging, or MRI, a powerful diagnostic tool in clinical medicine.

His family recalled how Mr. Lowe in 1959 created a theory that by spinning samples at high speeds and at a specific angle, NMR would reveal details that otherwise would not be spotted. The family said "Magic Angle Spinning NMR" is now commercialized and a popular technique for molecular structural analysis of certain solid materials.

Mr. Lowe, along with his thesis supervisor Richard E. Norberg, introduced the Fourier Transform method in solid state NMR, according to the International Society for Magnetic Resonance.

Later, in 2004, the society awarded its prestigious ISMAR Prize to both men.

Mr. Lowe worked for three years at the University of Minnesota. He then arrived at Pitt, where he led its NMR Research Group. Mr. Lowe and the students who worked with him continued to pursue knowledge in the field. He kept his professorship at Pitt but moved his lab to the Mellon Institute after joining the Pitt/CMU center, where he worked with colleagues to develop novel MRI techniques for biomedical study.

Mr. Lowe loved classical music and the outdoors, his family said. He was an avid runner, biker and hiker, they said.

He also loved to make puns, recalled Irene Povlish, his wife of 26 years. "It came easy to him. He was witty. I think that was part of his ability to create, to see things in an innovative way," she said.

After his health began to decline in the 1990s, he continued to push himself with the help of a personal trainer. He retired from Pitt in 2005.

In addition to his wife, Mr. Lowe is survived by their daughter, Rachel Lowe of Philadelphia; a son and daughter from his previous marriage, Marc of San Jose, Calif., and Margo Lowe of Berkeley, Calif.; and two grandchildren.

No visitation is being held. A memorial party will be announced.

D'Alessandro Funeral Home and Crematory in Lawrenceville handled arrangements.


Bill Schackner:, 412-263-1977 and on Twitter: @BschacknerPG.


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