CT scanner

Scanner developed with the success of the Beatles

Sir Godfrey Hounsfield (Sutton-on-Trent, August 28, 1919 – Kingston-upon-Thames, August 12, 2004)

Few old newspapers are as interesting as the British ones. Each day they contain one or more pages of the famous obits, an abbreviation of obituaries or in memoriams. The obligatory obituaries of singers, actors, writers, politicians and athletes are only a small part of it.

Mathematicians, ornithologists, booksellers, hoteliers, priests, technicians, engineers… it doesn't matter, if they have been even a little special in their profession, they get a generous place.

In a reader's response to Sir Godfrey Hounsfield's obituary in The Independent, a certain Heather Rowe writes: 'We were together in a walking club who went on long walks in the countryside in the sixties, the walks that you say gave him his best ideas.

I often found him a bit absent and vague; he never said anything about his job.

He was the kind of man who happily drove on in his old car as he approached a tidal flat with a “danger of flooding” sign. The engine would sometimes give up. I can still see him stepping through the water, rubber band in hand, rummaging under the hood, and off we went again.

He was always gracious and kind. We were all amazed when we heard what he had accomplished.'

teeth X-rayHounsfield was born in 1919, the youngest of five children, on a remote farm in Nottinghamshire. He didn't study very well, but he struggled with all the machines on the farm, threshing machines, reaper binders and generators. When World War II broke out, he enlisted in the Royal Air Force as a volunteer reservist to train as a radio mechanic. He did his job so well that after the war a high-ranking soldier arranged a scholarship for him at a higher technical school. In 1951, at the age of 32, he ended up as an electrical engineer at the record company EMI. EMI stands for Electric Musical Industries. He first worked on radar instruments and guided weapons, and later on the first computers completely controlled by transistors. When EMI sold the computer department in 1962, he found work in the central laboratory.

The success of the Beatles and the revenue from their records left EMI with money a short time later. Hounsfield was allowed to go ahead.

On one of his trekking trips, he came up with the idea of developing a CT or CAT (computerized axial tomography) scanner, a machine that bombards the body with X-rays from all directions, after which a computer organizes the results and produces images of cross-sections of the body.

For example, with conventional radiography you could hardly see ailments in the brain or kidneys; tumors were almost indistinguishable from healthy tissue in the traditional way.

Hounsfield conducted his first experiments in 1968 on the brain of a boar. The process took nine days and the computer took two and a half hours to map the 28,000 measurements.

He first tested the device on his own brain, before in October 1971 in a hospital in Wimbledon a woman with a brain tumor was first scanned. EMI announced the existence of the revolutionary device in April 1972.

Scanning was already possible in four minutes, while the computer image only needed three seconds.

The device today looks like a round tube through which the patient's body is quickly pushed. The whole investigation takes less than a minute. The tube is full of detectors that are able to capture every part of the body in images and show them in three dimensions.

In the past ten years, this technique has evolved spectacularly.
The timid Hounsfield was showered with tributes. In 1975 he became a member of the Royal Society, very unusual for someone without a high school diploma. Another highlight was the Nobel Prize for Medicine in 1979. He stated that he had only just found a permanent home at the time.

He died in the summer of 2004, aged 84. Outside Britain, his death was not given any attention.

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