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Sir Godfrey Hounsfield, 84; Shared Nobel for CT Scan

August 29, 2004|From Times Staff and Wire Reports

Sir Godfrey Hounsfield, the British engineer who shared a Nobel Prize in medicine in 1979 for inventing CT-scan technology, has died. He was 84.

Hounsfield, who also developed the first practical CT-scan machine, died Aug. 12 at a hospital in Kingston Upon Thames, England. The cause of death was not announced by his family.

Hounsfield shared the Nobel with American physicist Allan M. Cormack, who wrote the first theoretical papers on the CT-scan system. Although Hounsfield and Cormack were pursuing the same scientific concepts, they worked independently and did not meet until the prizes were presented to them Oct. 12, 1979.

The CT -- computerized tomography -- scan, which makes three-dimensional images of the body's interior, has been recognized as a revolutionary tool in medical care and is now commonly used.

The youngest of five children, Hounsfield was born in Newark, England. His father was also an engineer but turned to farming. Young Godfrey grew up on a farm and was not particularly interested in the agricultural life.

"On a farm, you can get very bored," he told a Los Angeles Times reporter after winning the Nobel.

To stave off boredom, Hounsfield began playing with electronic devices at an early age. At 13, he built a phonograph, putting it together from a collection of spare parts. In his mid-teens, he built his own radio sets.

"The periods between my 11th and 18th years remain the most vivid in my memory, because this was the time of my first attempts at experimentation, which might never have been made had I lived in the city," he recalled years later.

"I made hazardous investigations of the principles of flight, launching myself from the tops of haystacks with a homemade glider," he said. "I almost blew myself up during exciting experiments using water-filled tar barrels and acetylene to see how high they could be water-jet-propelled."

Hounsfield earned his radio communications qualification certificate from a college in London before joining the Royal Air Force in 1939. He stayed in the RAF throughout World War II, learning radar technology and eventually teaching it to other technicians. After the war, he earned a degree in electrical and mechanical engineering, which ended his formal education. He did not pursue a doctorate.

Hounsfield went to work for EMI Ltd., the conglomerate best known for its endeavors in electronics, music and the entertainment fields. He worked first on radar and later on computer design.

As a project engineer at EMI, he was head of a design team that created the first large, solid-state computer to be built in Britain.

An avid walker, Hounsfield was out on a weekend stroll through the countryside when he theorized that "you could determine what was inside the box by taking readings at all angles through it."

On his return to the EMI research laboratory, he began work on a machine that could process hundreds of X-ray beams to obtain a three-dimensional display of the inside of a living organism.

He performed some of his first tests on the brain of a cow that a colleague had procured from a kosher butcher in London.

The prototype CT scanner was designed only to examine the head. Hounsfield tested the first device in 1972, and a patent was granted to him that year.

He was elected a fellow of the Royal Society in 1975 and knighted in 1981. He stayed with EMI throughout his career and retired in 1986.

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