Science

Nobel Misfire?

Raymond Damadian gets snubbed

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Modern inventions usually have many parents. Thus Nobel Prizes in recent years have generally been won by several discoverers at a time. For example, the Nobel Prize in Physiology and Medicine was awarded earlier this week to Paul Lauterbur and Peter Mansfield for discovering magnetic resonance imaging (MRI).

Today there are 22,000 MRI machines worldwide and some 60 million patients annually benefit from this noninvasive diagnostic technique that can identify tumors and the damage caused by heart attacks and strokes. Lauterbur and Mansfield made absolutely crucial contributions to the development of practical MRIs. Congratulations are certainly warranted, but there is a oddity about the award.

Did the Nobel committee overlook the first inventor of MRI? I bring this question up because I had thought that the idea that MRI could be used to image living tissue was first conceived by American physician Raymond Damadian. I formed this impression when, back in the mid-1980s I reviewed A Machine Called Indomitable by New York Times reporter Sonny Kleinfield, which was the story of how Damadian created the first MRI machine. A cursory Google search fairly clearly identifies Damadian as the first inventor of MRI scanning. In fact, Damadian's first MRI machine, Indomitable, is displayed at the National Inventors Hall of Fame in Akron, Ohio, on loan from the Smithsonian's National Museum of American History.

Damadian supporters are running a full page ad in today's Washington Post urging people to contact the Nobel committee to "express their outrage" at excluding Damadian. Why did the committee not cite Damadian's work when it awarded this prize? I have no inside information, but I wonder if the committee was swayed by the fact that Damadian, although a brilliant inventor, is apparently a creation science nut. In ironic contrast, Lauterbur's current research is on the chemical origins of life.