Imaging must not forget its roots and links with the past

June 1, 2007

The global medical imaging community is preoccupied with the present and future, very rarely reflecting on the past. Few people would dispute the accuracy of this statement, and in many ways such a preoccupation is entirely understandable.

The global medical imaging community is preoccupied with the present and future, very rarely reflecting on the past. Few people would dispute the accuracy of this statement, and in many ways such a preoccupation is entirely understandable. Technological advances continue to be made with amazing frequency, and it requires immense effort to keep up to date with state-of-the-art imaging. There seems to be little or no time to consider the past. This obsession with the future is flawed, according to an eminent German radiologist.

"When I was young, I had very little interest in the past," said Prof. Peter E. Peters, the former director of the Institute of Clinical Radiology at the University of Munster, during an interview in late 1994. "Now I realize we are standing on the shoulders of our forefathers in science. I continue to be impressed with what radiologists knew 50 or 70 years ago, and research that is presented as new at congresses often has its roots in much earlier work."

Peters gave a sparkling lecture about the history of medical imaging during the opening ceremony of the 1995 European Congress of Radiology, which marked the 100th anniversary of Wilhelm Conrad Rontgen's discovery of x-ray. He gave a string of compelling reasons why radiologists should take a keen interest in the past and won over many skeptics in the audience. Tragically, he died a few months later, but the careers of many of his prodigies have since taken off. His former deputy at Munster, Prof. Georg Bongartz, for instance, was program chair of the ISMRM/ESMRMB congress held in Berlin last month.

Anybody who doubts the relevance of history should spend a day at the German Rontgen Museum in Rontgen's birthplace, Remscheid-Lennep, near Dusseldorf. The museum is crammed with fascinating exhibits, including the CT scanner developed by Sir Godfrey Hounsfield in 1972.

A modernization scheme has brought the museum firmly into the 21st century. It now aims to serve as an educational facility with a hands-on approach to science, as well as a focal point for research, industry, and the public. Part of the new Rontgen-X-Museum opened at the end of March, although its new website (www.roentgen-x-museum.de) was still under construction at the start of May.

Meanwhile, the museum's other important work will continue. It hosted a two-day breast imaging workshop in March and will stage another event in September. The prestigious annual Rontgen Plaque was awarded to three recipients on 5 May: Prof. Horst Sack of Essen, Prof. Rolf Sauer of Erlangen, and Prof. Michael Wannenmacher of Heidelberg. The 1987 winner of the plaque, Dr. Paul Lauterbur, professor emeritis at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, U.S., died in late March 2007. Lauterbur was honored for his discovery of MRI in 2003, jointly winning with University of Nottingham physicist Peter Mansfield, Ph.D., a Nobel Prize in physiology or medicine.