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A Prize Fight in Science

October 14, 2003

A common frustration in academia is that society tends to lavish riches on the most commercially minded scientists, the cocksure inventors who find market applications for others' insights. Last week, the Royal Swedish Academy, in awarding its Nobel Prize in medicine, scored one for two littler guys, Paul C. Lauterbur and Sir Peter Mansfield, academics who developed but did not cash in on the careful, complex equations that led to modern magnetic resonance imaging.

Raymond Damadian, a showy physician, entrepreneur and researcher, holds the basic patent on the MRI technique, which allows doctors to see body organs clearly and detect cancer without surgery. Last week, Damadian's company, Long Island, N.Y.-based Fonar Corp., took out full-page ads in The Times, the Washington Post and the New York Times calling the committee's exclusion of Damadian "a shameful wrong that must be righted."

"I have hoped for 30 years of my life for some moment of vindication," Damadian said in a newspaper interview. "To ... see that I had been written out of history is an agony I cannot live with." That's going a bit far for a man who shared a National Medal of Technology in 1988 with Lauterbur and grew rich from his discoveries.

Damadian published his findings in 1971. Later that year, Lauterbur devised a different way to use magnetism to produce images. Ultimately, the Nobel judges decided that Lauterbur's discoveries were more critical to modern imaging than Damadian's method. (Mansfield was recognized for making Lauterbur's method more efficient.)

How and why the judges decided as they did won't be known for 50 years, the period for which all Nobel deliberations are sealed.

Damadian's supporters have suggested that he was slighted because he often flouted the etiquette of the scientific community. Like some mad comic book scientist, he tested his first scanner, which he immodestly dubbed "Indomitable," in 1977 by wiggling his own body into its shiny corset-like antenna coil. Then he wrote a boastful press release about his "perfected" technique for cancer detection.

The Royal Swedish Academy has acknowledged that its awards are fallible. It has even considered giving the prizes to institutions and not individuals, to recognize the fact recently emphasized by National Institutes of Health Director Elias Zerhouni that many breakthroughs come not from individuals but from huge teams of scientists.

In one way at least, that would be a shame. It would close the rare window onto the scientific "sausage factory" that Damadian's dissatisfaction opened. Research has its brawling competitors, and two of the most tireless have been Damadian and Lauterbur. Damadian's claim that objective science would prove him the winner ignores the human dimension of discovery. Not everything in science is an equation.

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