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Gordon L. Brownell, Professor emeritus, 86

Nuclear Science and Engineering Professor emeritus Gordon L. Brownell PhD '50, a widely respected physicist and innovator, died at his home Tuesday, Nov. 11, following a long illness. He was 86.

Brownell played a key role in developing positron imaging and positron emission tomography. In the 1950s, together with neurosurgeon William H. Sweet of Massachusetts General Hospital, he pioneered the use of the technology to detect and locate brain tumors in human patients. In addition, Brownell developed boron neutron capture therapy for treatment of brain tumors.

Born in Duncan, Okla., and raised in New York and Pennsylvania, Brownell received his BSc from Bucknell University and his PhD in physics from MIT. During World War II, he served in the Navy Research Group to develop acoustic devices to detect deep-sea mines.

Brownell established the Physics Research Laboratory at MGH in 1950 and served as the honorary physicist in the Department of Radiology at MGH until his death. He was named professor at MIT in 1956 and served as a professor emeritus in the Department of Nuclear Science and Engineering at MIT until his death.

In 2002, Brownell's contributions to science were rewarded with election to the Institute of Medicine. More details on his achievements in imaging instrumentation can be found at

Though Brownell's life was largely consumed with scientific research, he was an avid world traveler and reader. In his later years, he was involved in real estate development in St. John, U.S. Virgin Islands.

In addition to his wife, Anna-Liisa (Pranni) Brownell, he is survived by six children: Wendy L. Silverman of Needham; Peter G. Brownell of Marlborough; David L. Brownell of Medway; James K. Brownell of Waltham; Piia J. DiMeco of Wilmington; and Janne K. Kairento of Beverly. He is also survived by a brother, Roscoe Brownell Jr., of Altoona, Pa., and seven grandchildren.

A funeral was held Saturday, Nov. 15, in the First Church in Salem. In lieu of flowers, memorial contributions may be made to The Gordon L. Brownell Scholarship Fund for the Advancement of Physics, c/o Salem Five Bank Acct. #773048947, 210 Essex St., Salem, MA 01970. For guest book and additional information please visit

A version of this article appeared in MIT Tech Talk on November 19, 2008 (download PDF).

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