Mansfield, The Inventor Of The MRI

Feb 20, 2017 By James H, Young Editor
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Since it was introduced in the 1970s, Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI for short) has provided a way for doctors to view detailed scans of the human body.

Besides muscle and bone injuries, MRI's have been used in the diagnosis of brain tumors, dementia, and other infections or inflammations of soft tissues. Sir Peter Mansfield, a British physicist who won the Nobel Prize in 2003 for this breakthrough discovery, passed away recently at the age of 83. 

How Does An MRI Work?

The MRI machine is a large cylindrical tube surrounded by a giant magnet. The patient, lying on a table, is slid inside the cylinder and subjected to harmless radio waves. How does this generate a picture that can be helpful to doctors? 

As you know, human bodies are mostly made of water which consists of hydrogen and oxygen atoms. The hydrogen atoms have a single proton (remember atoms are made of protons, neutrons and electrons?). Now, every proton is like a tiny magnet spinning randomly about its axis, much like a spinning top. When this proton is subjected to a strong magnetic field from an MRI magnet, the proton's magnetic field aligns with the MRI magnet.

When this magnetized proton is then bombarded by radio waves, it absorbs the energy. Once the wave emitter is turned off, the protons reflect the weak radio waves back. These are picked up by receivers to create a detailed picture of the patient’s body organs and tissues. 

Mansfield's Life: An Inspiration

Sir Peter Mansfield was born in Lambeth, London in 1933 to a poor, working class family. His father was a gas fitter and his mother, a waitress. His early school years were interrupted by World War II as bomb raids forced him to leave London a few times. When he settled back in London, Mansfield was told by a school counselor that he was not good enough for a future in science. And so, he left school at age 15 to work as a printer’s assistant.

Fascinated by the rockets that he has seen during the war, Mansfield wanted to work in the field of rocket science. He took up a job with the UK government’s rocket propulsion department and later served in the army for two years. During this time, he also graduated from high school.

Following his love for science, Mansfield went on to study physics, receiving his Bachelor of Science and PhD degrees. In 1964, he became a physics lecturer at the University of Nottingham. A few years later, he worked with a team of researchers in the Nuclear Magnetic Resonance (NMR) group and developed the technology for MRI equipment. In 1978, Mansfield tested the machine by allowing himself to be scanned in the MRI machine, proving it safe for use in the medical world. Mansfield was knighted by Britain's Queen in 1993, and hence the honor 'Sir' was added to his name. 

Before MRI technology was invented, doctors did exploratory surgeries on their patients to find the problem. Thanks to Sir Peter Mansfield, we now have a safe and non-surgical way of diagnosing health issues!