MR, CT developers enter inventors’ hall of fame

February 8, 2007

Nobel laureates Paul Lauterbur and Peter Mansfield and CT pioneer Godfrey Hounsfield are among the innovators chosen to join the ranks of the National Inventors Hall of Fame. The men are part of a diverse cross section of inductees that includes the developer of the popular weed killer Roundup, inventor of the automotive airbag, and creator of the Ethernet.

Nobel laureates Paul Lauterbur and Peter Mansfield and CT pioneer Godfrey Hounsfield are among the innovators chosen to join the ranks of the National Inventors Hall of Fame. The men are part of a diverse cross section of inductees that includes the developer of the popular weed killer Roundup, inventor of the automotive airbag, and creator of the Ethernet.

Mansfield and Lauterbur shared the 2003 Nobel Prize in physiology or medicine for their discoveries regarding magnetic resonance imaging, a choice that spurred Dr. Raymond Damadian, founder of Fonar, to mount a public campaign to have the selection committee include his name among the recipients. Damadian's efforts ultimately failed.

Lauterbur recalled in his autobiography on the Nobel Web site how he first came up with the idea of MR imaging while at the helm of a company on the brink of bankruptcy: "The developments at the company could supply the plot for a novel, but the incident that is important for my purpose here is that a post-doc arrived with tumor-bearing rats to check the proton NMR relaxation times of their tumors and normal tissues and organs. I was there to observe the experiments, and noted that large and consistent differences were observed for specimens from all parts of the sacrificed animals and that the experiments seemed well-done. Some individuals were speculating that similar measurements might supplement or replace the observations of cell structure in tissues by pathologists, but the invasive nature of the animal procedure was distasteful to me, the data too complex, and the sources of differences too obscure, to be relied upon for medical decisions. As I pondered the problem that evening, I realized that there might be a way to locate the precise origins of NMR signals in complex objects, and hence to form an image of their distributions in two or even three dimensions."

Mansfield recalled that following his scientific presentation in 1973 entitled "Multi-pulse Line Narrowing Experiments: NMR Diffraction in Solids?" he was asked if he was aware of similar published work by Lauterbur, which dealt with imaging water in test tubes. He was not, he replied, but his later reading of Lauterbur's paper and evaluation of the challenges facing the investigation of solids led him to believe that "the pursuit of imaging in solids was perhaps ahead of its time and could be deferred for future work. It would be so much easier to look at biological specimens where the relaxation times were shorter and where the line widths were generally speaking narrower."

The 2007 class, to be inducted later this year, will also include Hounsfield, who died on Aug. 12, 2004. Hounsfield won the Nobel Prize in physiology or medicine in 1979 for his development of CT. Writing in his Nobel autobiography, Hounsfield recalled "it was while exploring various aspects of pattern recognition and their potential, in 1967, that the idea occurred to me which was eventually to become the EMI-Scanner and the technique of computed tomography...As might be expected, the programme involved many frustrations, occasional awareness of achievement when particular technical hurdles were overcome, and some amusing incidents, not least the experiences of travelling across London by public transport carrying bullock's brains for use in evaluation of an experimental scanner rig in the Laboratories."