A less than noble effort

November 12, 2003

By Greg Freiherr, Editor, gfreiherr@cmp.comI have often thought it ironic that year after year money derived from the invention of dynamite is used to fund peace prizes. I'll

By Greg Freiherr, Editor, gfreiherr@cmp.com

I have often thought it ironic that year after year money derived from the invention of dynamite is used to fund peace prizes. I'll admit, dynamite has some peaceful purposes such as blowing holes in rock for mining, and for construction. But let's face it, dynamite found its greatest purpose as an instrument of human suffering.

Was it Alfred Nobel's (or his wife's) sense of history that led him to create the first Nobel Peace Prize in 1895, perhaps even a need to be linked in perpetuity and around the globe with what is best in humankind? Given the prize's less than savory roots, I wonder why the committees charged with awarding this prize have not done more to ensure that it adequately recognizes accomplishment.

In 1944, the Nobel Prize for Chemistry was awarded to Otto Hahn for the discovery of nuclear fission. His collaborator, Lise Meitner, was left out. In 1962, Francis Crick and James Watson were honored with the Nobel for their research into DNA. But they could not have succeeded without the efforts of others, one of whom, Rosalind Franklin, is widely believed to have contributed information critical to their work.

Fast forward now to the debacle of this year's Nobel Prize for Physiology or Medicine. Think and say what you want of Dr. Raymond Damadian. But recognize what he did. Dr. Paul Lauterbur does. In a lecture at the 2002 annual meeting of the International Society for Magnetic Resonance in Medicine, Lauterbur said he got his idea about using magnetic relaxation times to image cancer from Damadian's published research.

If Lauterbur, one of the two recipients of this year's Nobel Prize, recognizes Damadian's contributions, why didn't the Nobel committee? Would it have been so difficult to include a third recipient? Obviously not, since Nobel committees regularly award the prize to trios. So then, the committee, by choosing only Lauterbur and Sir Peter Mansfield, said to the world that Damadian's contributions were not as significant. And that is hard to understand.

These three men have been at the center of a controversy surrounding MRI for more than 20 years. But the controversy had always focused on who was principally responsible for MRI. Not whether two of them were really pioneers and the other a pretender.

Elbowing Damadian out of the limelight, when MRI finally is recognized for the impact it has had on medicine, raises questions about the credibility of the Nobel Prize. Worse, it taints the achievements of its recipients.