‘He brought enthusiasm to the lab’: Beloved UC Berkeley professor, MRI pioneer Jay Singer dies at 97

Glen Stevick/Courtesy

Jerome “Jay” Singer, a UC Berkeley professor known for pioneering magnetic resonance imaging, died July 30 at the age of 97. 

Singer taught and conducted research at UC Berkeley within both the biophysics department and the electrical engineering and computer sciences, or EECS, department for 25 years, earning the title of engineering science professor emeritus. In addition to his time at UC Berkeley, he worked as an adjunct professor of radiology at UCSF for several years, where he carried forward research on medical imaging. 

With his graduate student collaborators, Singer has been jointly awarded more than 20 patents, including two for MRI technology, according to Singer’s faculty biography on the EECS department website. Singer was known as a prolific inventor and researcher. Throughout his professional career, he published more than 100 scientific papers and was the author of two books. In 2003, he was nominated for a Nobel Prize for his work. 

In the late 1990s, Singer and his colleague, Lawrence Crooks, sued the UC system, claiming that they had not been paid their promised royalties from their work and patents for MRI technology in the 1970s. In 1997, a state appeals court ruled in favor of the pair and ordered the UC to pay $2.3 million in royalties, according to the San Francisco Chronicle.

Singer made advances in the magnetic imaging field by inventing tools and methods to measure the speed and flow of blood. Singer, alongside two of his graduate students, invented the first practicable MRI machine using a superconducting magnet and a computer.

Glen Stevick, founder of a Berkeley engineering laboratory and longtime friend of Singer’s, recalled first meeting him at the gym, where he was explaining one of the machines. 

“He brought enthusiasm to the lab. No matter how difficult the problem was, we could solve it,” Stevick said. “He was one of those few people who was good at theory and equations but could also step up to a mill and run it and actually build what he designed. There are very few people who can do that.” 

In addition to his research, Singer founded or co-founded eight high-tech companies and was the editor of the first issue of the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers’ Journal on Quantum Electronics. 

Singer and his wife, Margaret, often held gatherings at Brennan’s, an Irish bar located on University Avenue, with their friends, colleagues and students. 

“All the grad students and their friends would be there,” Stevick said. “They would hold court like a literary salon. It was like what you might see in the movies with the Fitzgeralds or something but more technical.” 

Even in his 90s, Singer continued to pursue his passion within labs and research. A few of his patents were filed when he was well into his 90s, according to Stevick, and he continued to drive to the lab into his late 90s. 

“He was like a second father to me. … He loved life. He was the most optimistic and smartest person I ever knew,” Stevick said in an email.

Contact Meera Srinivasan at [email protected].