Today marks the 47th installment in a series of articles by HumanProgress.org titled Heroes of Progress. This bi-weekly column provides a short introduction to heroes who have made an extraordinary contribution to the well-being of humanity. You can find the 46th part of this series here.
This week our heroes are Raymond Damadian, Paul Lauterbur and Sir Peter Mansfield–three scientists who created and refined the magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) machine. Damadian created the world’s first MRI scanner after he realized that cancerous cells would produce different magnetic resonance signals when compared to normal, non-cancerous cells. Prompted by Damadian’s discoveries, Lauterbur developed a way for MRI machines to visualize these cells' signal differences and produce a clear image of inside a patient’s body. Finally, Mansfield created a technique for MRI scans to be conducted in just seconds, rather than hours, and for the image that the scanners produced to be significantly clearer, and therefore more accurate. Each year, hundreds of millions of MRI scans take place. Thanks to their use, untold millions of lives have been extended or saved.
Raymond Damadian was born March 16, 1936 in New York to a family of Armenian immigrants. At just 10 years old, Damadian’s interest in detecting cancer was sparked after his maternal grandmother died of breast cancer. As a gifted violinist, Damadian won a scholarship to the University of Wisconsin at just 16 years old. While in Wisconsin, Damadian soon realized that his prospects of becoming a successful violinist were slim. Instead, he began to pursue his other passions – math’s and chemistry.
In 1956, Damadian graduated from the University of Wisconsin with a degree in mathematics. With an aspiration to help find better treatments for cancer, Damadian studied medicine at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine in New York. In 1960, Damadian graduated with an M.D. and enrolled in postgraduate fellowships at both Washington University and Harvard University. During his time at Harvard, Damadian became interested in the field of medical imaging and magnetic resonance. He had experienced severe abdominal pain and his doctors, who were using conventional x-rays, were unable to discover the cause of his ailment. This event led Damadian to ponder if there was a better way to examine the inner workings of the body.
As a medical student, Damadian had been automatically deferred from the draft to fight in the Vietnam War. However, in the mid-1960s, as the U.S. participation in the war neared its apex, Damadian received orders from the U.S. Air Force to begin active duty. Damadian was stationed at the Brooks Air Force Base in San Antonio, Texas. During his time in Texas, Damadian’s commanding officers allowed him to continue his personal work, which focused on using magnetic resonance, provided that he also did some investigations for the Air Force on the rocket fuel hydrazine. In 1967, Damadian left the military and joined the faculty of the State University of New York (SUNY) Downstate Medical Center to continue his work on magnetic resonance.
Magnetic resonance works by exposing atomic nuclei to a magnetic field and radio waves, which then cause the emission of other radio waves at consistent frequencies. When radio waves are pulsed through something that is being scanned, the protons in that object, or person, are stimulated and spin out of equilibrium. When the field is turned off, protons in the thing being scanned return to their normal spin and produce a radio signal, which can then be measured by receivers in the scanner. Damadian knew that cancerous cells held more water, and therefore more hydrogen, than healthy cells. In 1969, he theorized that when magnetic resonance equipment scans a body, radio waves will take longer to get through cancerous tissue. This lag could then be used to detect damaged tissue.
A year later, Damadian began testing his theory by scanning cancerous liver samples from laboratory rats using magnetic resonance. His experiments were successful. In 1971, he published his findings in the journal Science. In the article, he reasoned that cancerous tissues could be externally detected in humans without using radiation, providing a large enough scanner were built. This discovery laid the foundation for the basis of the MRI machines we have today. However, Damadian had no way of generating pictures or being able to clearly visualize the results of his scans. This is where Paul Lauterbur enters our story.
Paul Lauterbur was born May 6, 1929 in Ohio. As a child, Lauterbur was fascinated with science. When he was a teenager, he built his own laboratory in the basement of his parent’s house. After graduating from high school in 1947, Lauterbur enrolled at the Case Institute of Technology (now Case Western Reserve University) in Ohio to study chemistry. After graduating with a Bachelor of Science degree in 1951, Lauterbur went to work as a research associate at the Mellon Institute in Pittsburgh, Philadelphia. In 1953, Lauterbur was drafted into the Korean War and worked at the Army Chemical Center in Maryland.
As was the case with Damadian, Lauterbur’s superiors allowed him to work on an early magnetic resonance machine. By the time he left the army in 1955, he had published four scientific papers on magnetic resonance. After his two years in the military, Lauterbur returned to the Mellon Institute and enrolled in graduate classes at the University of Pittsburgh. In 1962, Lauterbur graduated from Pittsburgh with a PhD in Chemistry and accepted a position as an associate professor at Stony Brook University, New York.
In 1971, after reading Damadian’s article in Science, Lauterbur became interested in the potential biological uses of magnetic resonance technology. Lauterbur regretted that Damadian’s experiments had been done on dead tissue and began to wonder if there was a way for living tissue to be imaged. Lauterbur knew that Damadian used a uniform magnetic field. If a non-uniform field were used, he theorized, a clear image of the scan could be created. By adding gradients to the scanner’s magnet field, the MRI machine could determine the origin of the emitted radio waves from what was being scanned. As a consequence, an image could then be generated.
In 1973, Lauterbur was successful in producing the first ever magnetic resonance image of water in a test tube. After publishing his findings in the journal Nature, he soon imaged the first ever living subject: a small clam.
In 1974, Damadian received the first patient in the field of MRI, when his 1972 application for the concept of using magnetic resonance to detect cancer was approved. With the help of several graduate students, Damadian eventually built the first human MRI scanner, dubbed the “Indomitable.” On July 3, 1977, almost five years after starting to test the machine, the Indomitable achieved the first human MRI scan of one of Damadian’s graduate students. The crude two-dimensional image showed the student’s heart and lungs.
On the other side of the Atlantic, another scientist, Peter Mansfield, began working on a method to significantly speed up the time it took for MRI machines to complete a scan. Mansfield was born on October 9, 1933 in London. Aged 15, Mansfield expressed an interest in science. Due to his unexceptional school performance, he was advised by his teacher to drop the subject. That led him to leave school and work as a printer’s assistant. Aged 19, Mansfield developing an interest in rocketry. He ignored his teacher’s advice and accepted a job with the Rocket Propulsion Department at the U.K. Ministry of Supply. Eighteen months later, Mansfield was called up for National Service.
After serving two years in the army, Mansfield returned to the Rocket Propulsion Department in 1954. He also began to take night classes to gain a place at university. In 1956, Mansfield enrolled in a Bachelor of Science program in Physics at Queen Mary College, University of London. Mansfield graduated in 1959 and stayed at Queen Mary College to study for his PhD. There he worked in the magnetic resonance research group. In 1962, Mansfield graduated with a PhD in physics. In 1964, he became a lecturer at the University of Nottingham.
Mansfield followed Damadian’s and Lauterbur’s work closely, but considered the slow speed it took for the MRI machines to produce an image a significant problem. In 1977, Mansfield created a new technique that allowed MRI scans to take just seconds, rather than hours. His new method also produced clearer images.
After being unsuccessful in attracting any funding for his research, Damadian decided to set up his own company called the Fonar Corporation in 1978. Fonar aimed to produce and sell MRI machines, by adopting techniques developed by Lauterbur and Mansfield. In 1980, his company sold the first MRI machine. Soon Damadian's machines were in hospitals and laboratories all over the world. In the 1980’s, Damadian also collaborated with our 36th Hero of Progress, Wilson Greatbatch, who invented the implantable pacemaker, to create an MRI-compatible pacemaker.
In 1988, President Ronald Reagan awarded the National Medal of Technology to Damadian and Lauterbur for “their independent contributions in conceiving and developing the application of magnetic resonance technology to medical uses, including whole-body scanning and diagnostic imaging.” Less than one year later, Damadian was inducted into the National Inventors Hall of Fame. In 2007, Lauterbur was honored in the same way.
In 2003, controversy arose, when the Nobel Prize in Physiology and Medicine was presented to Lauterbur and Mansfield. Despite Nobel rules allowing awards to be shared by three people, Damadian was not given the prize. Some have suspected that Damadian’s creationist views, the fact he was a physician and not an academic scientist, or his supposedly abrasive personality, may have been factors that contributed to him not being awarded the prize. In response to Nobel’s announcement, Damadian took the unusual step of protesting the decision and took out several full-page advertisements in prominent newspapers all over the world to argue that he was deserving of the prize. Various MRI scientists have supported Damadian’s claim to the Nobel Prize, but many other scientists criticized his response to the decision, deeming it unprofessional.
Left to right: Raymond Damadian, Paul Lauterbur and Sir Peter Mansfield.
Throughout his life Lauterbur received dozens of awards and several honorary degrees. In 2007, he died, aged 77, from kidney disease at his home in Illinois. Mansfield also received a plethora of awards including a knighthood in 1993, and the Lifetime Achievement Award, which was presented to him by the U.K. Prime Minister in 2009. In 2017, Mansfield died, aged 83, in Nottingham, England. Today, Damadian remains chairman of the board of Fonar and still lives in New York.
Thanks to the work of Damadian, Lauterbur and Mansfield, the field of diagnostic medicine was changed forever. Without Damadian, it wouldn’t be known that serious diseases could be detected by magnetic resonance. Without Lauterbur, there wouldn’t be a way to clearly visualize the machine’s results. And without Mansfield, MRI machines would take hours, rather than seconds, to scan patients. The MRI scanners are among the most reliable diagnostic tools in all of medicine. Thanks to their existence, millions of lives have been extended and saved. For these reasons, Raymond Damadian, Paul Lauterbur and Peter Mansfield are our deservingly our 47th Heroes of Progress.