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Feedback archiveFeedback 2006

Dr Damadian’s vital contribution to MRI:

Nobel prize controversy returns

21–22 October 2006; updated 3 June 2014
Dr Damadian with prototype MRI scanner

Dr Damadian with the history-making prototype of Dr Damadian’s MRI scanner. The first MR image of a human skull was made with this scanner on July 3, 1977. The prototype is now on permanent display at the Smithsonian Institution‘s Hall of Medical Sciences.

A reader of Creation magazine (left in a doctor’s waiting room, an excellent idea) questioned our claim that creationist Dr Raymond Damadian was unfairly denied a Nobel prize, and resorted to personal attack. Dr Jonathan Sarfati responds, demonstrating Dr Damadian’s worthiness to share the award by citing from the definitive MRI history of his essential contributions.

Dear editor:
I picked up your magazine in a doctor’s waiting room recently and read ‘We already presented the case of the creationist Raymond Damadian, the inventor of MRI scanning’ (28(3), 2006, p. 45). I can tell you quite authoritatively that Damadian did not (ED: note emphasis) invent MRI scanning.
My credentials are a 25-year career in medical imaging research at the US National Institutes of Health and 125 published papers, including many on MRI. I am very familiar with MRI scanning and Damadian’s role. The Nobel prize was rightly awarded to Godfrey Hounsfield and Allan Cormack for finding a mathematical way to ‘reconstruct an image’ from magnetic resonance signals.
Damadian never did this. Damadian simply shaped the magnetic fields so as to obtain a signal from an area of several square centimeters. He got the ‘Magnetic Resonance’ part of it, but not the ‘Imaging’ part (which is the ‘I’ in MRI). It was the idea of mathematical reconstruction that made the technique so powerful and led to the Nobel award.
Damadian, being a very egocentric individual, launched a campaign to claim that he was cheated out of the Nobel prize and many people who don’t know any better believed him. I do hope that you will correct this error.
R.A.B.
Otago
New Zealand
P.S. Since I don’t subscribe to your magazine, I sincerely request that you inform me as to what action you take on this matter. I would very much like to know that truth has prevailed.

Dear Dr B.

Damadian’s contribution

Dear editor:
I picked up your magazine in a doctor’s waiting room recently and read ‘We already presented the case of the creationist Raymond Damadian, the inventor of MRI scanning’ (28(3), 2006, p. 45). I can tell you quite authoritatively that Damadian did not (ED: note emphasis) invent MRI scanning.

We stand by our commentary on Damadian not sharing the Nobel prize, which does not in any way denigrate the contributions of others. For documentation, I will cite from the definitive 840-page book The Pioneers of NMR and Magnetic Resonance in Medicine: The Story of MRI, by James Mattson and Merrill Simon, Bar-Ilan University Press, Jericho, New York, 1996. The title of chapter 8: ‘Raymond V. Damadian: Originator of the Concept of Whole-Body NMR Scanning (MRI) and Discoverer of the NMR Tissue Relaxation Differences That Made It Possible.’

President's Medal

Dr Damadian’s President’s Medal.

In 1998, his alma mater, the University of Wisconsin-Madison, described him as ‘one of the inventors of magnetic resonance imaging’, and awarded him an honorary doctorate. And in 2001, the Lemelson-MIT program bestowed its Lifetime Achievement Award on Dr Damadian as ‘the man who invented the MRI scanner’.

In the abovementioned book, the last chapter, after the one featuring Dr Damadian was on Dr Paul Lauterbur (1929–2007). (He was one of the winners of the 2003 Nobel Prize for Physiology and Medicine ‘ for their discoveries concerning “ magnetic resonance imaging”’, that controversially excluded Dr Damadian.)

In the Damadian chapter, Pioneers of NMR contains the following heading:

Damadian, the first to conceive of the NMR whole-body NMR scanner (1969) and the first to construct it (1977).’ [bold heading in original]

Pioneers of NMR then goes on to state [italics added]:

Thus it is unambiguous that Damadian is the originator of the NMR body scanner concept, preceding Lauterbur’s first conceptualization of an NMR scanner by years. Moreover, Damadian was the first to supply the tissue NMR signal differences that made the concept reality. While history has shown the Lauterbur method superior to the Damadian method in speed and efficiency, there is no doubt that Damadian is the originator of the NMR scanning concept and that he uncovered the tissue NMR signals that made it possible. …
Today, because of Damadian, thousands of MR scanners around the world are producing millions of images that exquisitely depict both healthy and diseased tissue without the need for invasive procedures and without the ionizing radiation of X-rays.

In the last chapter on Dr Lauterbur, Pioneers of NMR cites a Lauterbur speech:

The attention of the medical community was first attracted to the report of Damadian that some animal tumors have remarkably long proton NMR relaxation times.

Earlier in 1971, Lauterbur’s notebook discussed making a map of a living organism:

For example, the distribution of mobile protons in tissues, and the differences in relaxation times that appear to be characteristic of malignant tumors [R. Damadian, Science, 171(1971), 1151].

Pioneers of NMR concludes:

Because of the contributions of Dr Raymond Damadian and Dr Paul Lauterbur, magnetic resonance imaging has become the most powerful and reliable diagnostic tool in medicine.
Millions of people the world over enjoy a higher quality of life and many lives have been saved, thanks to the contributions of Damadian and Lauterbur.
NMR scanning scanning resulted from two essential steps. They were taken by the two great MRI pioneers of this volume, Dr Raymond Damadian and Dr Paul Lauterbur. Dr Damadian provided the first step, the discovery of tissue NMR signal differences from which the image is made and the first concept of an NMR body scanner that would utilize these signal differences to detect disease in the human body. Dr Lauterbur provided the next step of visualizing these signal differences as an image and supplied the first method for acquiring these signals at practical speeds. It does not seem likely that MRI could have come to pass without the key steps contributed by both scientists.
Without Damadian’s discovery, it could not be known that serious diseases like cancer could be detected by an NMR scanner or that tissue NMR signals possessed sufficient contrast to create medically useful images. Without Lauterbur’s contribution, development of a practical method for visualizing these signal differences as an image might have occurred much less efficiently. …
Recognizing their achievements, the President of the United States awarded the nation’s highest honor in technology, the national Medal of Technology, jointly to Dr Damadian and Dr Lauterbur for the development of MRI. In presenting the award on July 15, 1988, President Ronald Reagan cited both scientists ‘for their independent contributions in conceiving and developing the application of magnetic resonance technology to medical uses including whole-body scanning and diagnostic imaging.’
“ Without Damadian’s discovery, it could not be known that serious diseases like cancer could be detected by an NMR scanner or that tissue NMR signals possessed sufficient contrast to create medically useful images. ”

It is notable that out of the nine pioneers in the book—Isidor Rabi, Norman Ramsey, Edward Purcell, Felix Bloch, Nicolaas Bloembergen, Erwin Hahn, Richard Ernst, Raymond Damadian and Paul Lauterbur—only Hahn and Damadian have not been awarded the Nobel?!

And it is not just us who thought that the Nobel prize refusal in this instance was motivated by anti-Christian bigotry, but leading agnostic evolutionary philosopher Michael Ruse (The Nobel Prize in Medicine—Was there a religious factor in this year’s (non) selection? Metanexus Online Journal, 16 March 2004). More recently, George Kauffman, Professor of Chemistry at California State University, Fresno, wrote in an informative article explaining how Damadian came to discover the different NMR signals, calls the Nobel exclusion “The Shameful Wrong that Must be Righted”, and concludes:

Raymond Vahan Damadian, M.D. correctly claimed that he had invented MRI and that Lauterbur and Mansfield had merely refined the technology. Because Damadian was not included although the Nobel statutes permit the award to be made to three living individuals, his omission was deliberate. Possible purported reasons for his rejection have included the fact that he was a physician not an academic scientist, his intensive lobbying for the prize, his supposedly abrasive personality, and his active support of creationism, none of which constitute grounds for the denial. This article surveys previous contributions to nuclear magnetic resonance for which Nobel Prizes were awarded, explores Damadian’s personal and professional career, and concludes that Damadian’s seminal discovery preceded and was more fundamental than Lauterbur’s developments. …
Undoubtedly, both Damadian and Lauterbur made major contributions to MRI imaging and scanning. Without Damadian’s relaxation discoveries that showed sharp discrimination between tissues and particularly a serious disease like cancer, there would have been no reason to entertain or even consider a method for displaying the relaxation differences so that they could be visualized as an image. Furthermore, except for the relaxation differences discovered by Damadian, there would be no reason to expect that such an image would show anything, i.e., that any tissue NMR contrast existed with which to make an image.
Science and technology are two distinctly different enterprises. Science is the branch of knowledge dedicated to compiling factual information and understanding natural phenomena. It precedes technology, and technology cannot advance without it. Without science’s new knowledge of natural phenomena, technology’s new methods for exploiting and taking advantage of nature’s secrets cannot be created. The new scientific information is necessarily the first step.
Moreover, there is no doubt that Damadian’s seminal discovery preceded Lauterbur’s developments. Professor Henry Wallman (1913–1992) was a member of the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences for 25 years, a principal reviewer of the technical publications of candidates on behalf of the Nobel Committees in physics, chemistry, and economics, and a participant in the selection of the Nobel Prizes in these fields. After a comprehensive review of the documentary record of the origins of MRI, Wallman, himself a professor of applied electronics who invented X-ray televsision, for which he was named an honorary doctor of medicine, stated in writing letters recommending Damadian for important awards: “I am of the definite opinion that Dr. Damadian’s contribution was both prior to and more fundamental that [sic] Dr. Lauterbur’s” [the underlining is included in the original statement]. (Kauffman , G., Nobel Prize for MRI imaging denied to Raymond V. Damadian a decade ago, The Chemical Educator 19:73–90, 2014; bold in original.)

Another famous case

In the 1950s, Sir Fred Hoyle had some ingenious ideas about stellar fusion, and predicted that the Carbon-12 nucleus would have a certain energy level to enable helium to undergo fusion. His co-worker William Fowler eventually won the Nobel Prize for Physics in 1983 (with Subramanyan Chandrasekhar), but for some reason Hoyle’s original contribution was overlooked, and many were surprised that such a notable astronomer missed out. Fowler himself in an autobiographical sketch affirmed Hoyle’s immense contribution:

Fred Hoyle was the second great influence in my life. The grand concept of nucleosynthesis in stars was first definitely established by Hoyle in 1946.

Stephen Hawking agreed that Sir Fred Hoyle was unfairly denied a Nobel Prize (in Stephen Hawking: A Life in Science by Michael White and John Gribbin, 2002):

In one of the strangest decisions ever made by a Nobel committee, one of Hoyle’s colleagues, Willy Fowler, later received a share of the 1983 Nobel Prize for Physics for this work. Fowler is a fine physicist in his own right and was a key member of the team. But he is the first to acknowledge that Hoyle made the key breakthrough on carbon-12 production and was the inspiration for the team’s efforts. Unfortunately, later in his career Hoyle espoused some decidedly unconventional ideas about the possibility that outbreaks of disease on Earth might be caused by viruses from comets. It seems that the Nobel committee, in its wisdom (?), decided not to give him a share of the physics prize with Fowler for fear of seeming to lend credence to what they regarded as his more cranky work. At least the British establishment, for once belying its stuffy image, acknowledged Hoyle’s true worth with a knighthood.’’

More likely, the Nobel committee rejected him for his rejection of the big bang and chemical evolution. It might also have been payback for Hoyle’s condemnation of a previous exclusion in the Nobel Prize for Physics in 1974. Jocelyn Bell Burnell, who first noticed a pulsating radio signal from space, i.e. a pulsar, was excluded from the prize that was awarded to her supervisor Antony Hewish (along with Martin Ryle).

Conclusion

My credentials are a 25-year career in medical imaging research at the US National Institutes of Health and 125 published papers, including many on MRI. I am very familiar with MRI scanning and Damadian’s role. The Nobel prize was rightly awarded to Godfrey Hounsfield and Allan Cormack for finding a mathematical way to ‘reconstruct an image’ from magnetic resonance signals.

Actually, Drs Cormack and Hounsfield won the 1979 Nobel Prize for Physiology and Medicine for inventing the CAT (Computerized Axial Tomography) scan, which is not MRI at all but uses X-rays. We were talking about the 2003 Nobel Prize for Physiology and Medicine won for MRI by Dr Paul Lauterbur and Sir Peter Mansfield but not Dr Raymond Damadian.

Damadian never did this. Damadian simply shaped the magnetic fields so as to obtain a signal from an area of several square centimeters. He got the ‘Magnetic Resonance’ part of it, but not the ‘Imaging’ part (which is the ‘I’ in MRI). It was the idea of mathematical reconstruction that made the technique so powerful and led to the Nobel award.

You may wish to reconsider your invocation of the argumentum ad verecundiam fallacy, as well as revising the difference between CAT scans and MRI that you seem to have mixed up.

But to the main point, quite simply, without Dr Damadian’s contribution to MRI, there would have been nothing to image.

Damadian, being a very egocentric individual, launched a campaign to claim that he was cheated out of the Nobel prize and many people who don’t know any better believed him. I do hope that you will correct this error.

I do hope you will refrain in future from ‘poisoning the well’ with your irrelevant opinion on Dr Damadian’s personality.

P.S. Since I don’t subscribe to your magazine, I sincerely request that you inform me as to what action you take on this matter. I would very much like to know that truth has prevailed.

R.A.B.
Otago
New Zealand

I trust all the above makes a specific response to this request somewhat redundant.

Sincerely,

Jonathan Sarfati, Ph.D. (which included papers involving NMR spectroscopy published in secular journals, incidentally).
CMI–Brisbane, Australia

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