MRI pioneer contemplates life on a desert island

July 26, 2006

What music inspires a Nobel Laureate? The answer: Gustav Holst’s Jupiter from The Planets, Bedrich Smetena’s Ma Vlast (My Country), Charles Trenet’s La Mer, Perry Como’s Magic Moments, and William Walton’s Coronation March.

What music inspires a Nobel Laureate? The answer: Gustav Holst's Jupiter from The Planets, Bedrich Smetena's Ma Vlast (My Country), Charles Trenet's La Mer, Perry Como's Magic Moments, and William Walton's Coronation March.

Sir Peter Mansfield revealed his varied musical tastes on the BBC's long-running radio show, "Desert Island Discs," in which interviewees must imagine being stranded in the ocean. To ease the feeling of extreme isolation, they are allowed only eight songs, the Bible, the Complete Works of Shakespeare, another book, and a single luxury.

"I think I would be pretty miserable on the island," said Mansfield, who shared the 2003 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine with Dr. Paul C. Lauterbur for their contributions to MRI. "I like woodwork and metalwork, so I would build a shelter. But I would miss the family and my laboratory."

Mansfield expressed disappointment at receiving recognition from the Nobel Committee toward the end of his career, noting that the award came a little late in the day. Now 72, he is a professor emeritus of physics at the University of Nottingham, U.K., but he still works five days a week. His main current area of interest is noise reduction in MRI.

When asked how he had spent the nearly $735,000 prize, he said it went into the general research fund, although he did take his wife on a celebratory Mediterranean cruise. They are planning to go on another trip this year.

"I received a lot of fan mail after the Nobel Prize from people telling me about their experiences of MRI," he said. "There must be nothing worse than being left in suspense and not knowing whether you are seriously ill."

Perhaps surprisingly, Mansfield failed to acknowledge the role played by radiologists, physicists, and other researchers with whom he worked. During the 40-minute BBC interview, he mentioned only his former student Andrew Maudsley, whose fingers were the first human body part to be scanned at Nottingham.

"Sir Peter's story is one of persistence, determination, and sheer hard work, resulting in momentous achievement," said BBC radio presenter Sue Lawley in her introduction.

Mansfield was born in London before World War II and remembers as a boy witnessing the first Doodlebug attack on the capital. Watching the flying bombs gave him an interest in rocket propulsion that led to a lifelong fascination with science. The son of a gas-fitter, he left school without any qualifications at age 15. His school careers' officer laughed at his ambition to be a scientist and fixed him up with a job as a bookbinder. Mansfield put himself through night school and eventually obtained a Ph.D. in physics at the University of London.

He was appointed a research associate in the physics department of the University of Illinois, Urbana in 1962 and became a lecturer in physics at the University of Nottingham two years later. Between 1972 and 1973, Mansfield went on a sabbatical at the Max Planck Institute in Heidelberg. To remind him of this time there, he chose to take a German song to the mythical desert island: Vom Barrette Schwankt die Feder, performed by Heino and composed by Thum.

His other two choices were Abdelazar from Purcell and Nimrod from Elgar's Enigma Variations. For a book, he chose a family photo album. His luxury would be a helicopter.

For more information from the Diagnostic Imaging archives:

What has really happened in radiology since 1985?

Nobel Mistake?

Lauterbur and Mansfield win Nobel Prize for MR imaging

Making sense of MRI's origins