According to Ulf Lagerkvist, a member of the Swedish Academy of Sciences who participated in judging nominations for the chemistry prize, “It is in the nature of the Nobel Prize that there will always be a number of candidates who obviously deserve to be rewarded but never get the accolade.”
Usually, a losing candidate merely accepts the injustice. But in the case of the 2003 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine ($1.3 million), awarded ten years ago, to chemist Paul C. Lauterbur and physicist Sir Peter Mansfield “for their discoveries concerning magnetic resonance imaging,” the undoubtedly deserving candidate, Raymond Vahan Damadian, didn’t take this injustice lying down.
A group called “The Friends of Raymond Damadian” protested the denial with full-page advertisements in The New York Times, Washington Post, the Los Angeles Times, and the Stockholm newspaper Dagens Nyheter.
Damadian’s exclusion scandalized the scientific community in general and the Armenian community in particular. He correctly claimed that he had invented MRI and that Lauterbur and Mansfield had merely refined the technology.
Because Damadian was not included in the award even though the Nobel statutes permit the award to be made to as many as three living individuals, his omission was clearly deliberate.
The 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 Young Earth Creationism. None of these constitute valid grounds for the denial.
The careful wording of the prize citation reflects the fact that the laureates did not come up with the idea of applying nuclear magnetic resonance (NMR) (the term was later changed to avoid the public’s fear of the word “nuclear” even though nuclear energy is not involved in the procedure) to medical imaging.
Today MRI is universally used to image every part of the body and is particularly useful in diagnosing cancer, strokes, brain tumors, multiple sclerosis, torn ligaments and tendonitis, to name just a few conditions. An MRI scan is the best way to see inside the human body without cutting it open.
The original idea of applying NMR to medical imaging (MRI) was first proposed by Damadian, who found that there was a lag in relaxation times between the electrons of normal and malignant tissue, allowing him to distinguish between normal and cancerous tissue in rats implanted with tumors.
On March 19, 1971 in the journal Science he published the seminal article for NMR use in organ imaging.
Damadian received a grant from the National Institutes of Health (NIH) in 1971 to continue his work. He proposed to use whole body scanning by NMR for medical diagnosis in a U.S. patent issued on February 5, 1974. By February 1976 he was able to scan the interior of a live mouse using his FONAR method (field focused nuclear magnetic resonance).
In 1977, using his machine christened “Indomitable” — now preserved in the Smithsonian Institution, Washington, D.C. — Damadian tried to scan himself, but the test failed because of his excessive weight.
On July 3, 1977 he obtained the first human NMR image — a cross-section of his slender postgraduate assistant Larry Minkoff’s chest, which revealed heart, lungs, vertebra, and musculature. Minkoff had to be moved over 60 positions with 20 to 30 signals taken from each position.
Congratulatory telegrams poured in from all over the world, including one from Mansfield.
In early 1978, Damadian established the FONAR Corporation in Melville, NY to produce MRI scanners. Later that year he completed his design of the first practical permanent magnet for an MRI scanner, christened “Jonah.” By 1980 his QED 80, the first commercial MRI scanner, was completed.
The MRI imaging industry now expanded rapidly with more than a dozen different manufacturers. On Oct. 6, 1997 the U.S. Supreme Court awarded him $128,705,766 from the General Electric Company for infringement of his patent.
Damadian is universally recognized as the originator of MRI (by President Ronald Reagan, among others) and received numerous prestigious awards like the National Medal of Technology in 1988, the year in which he was inducted into the National Inventors Hall of Fame.
He was named by the international Armenian service organization, Knights of Vartan, the 2003 “Man of the Year.” On March 18, 2004 the Franklin Institute of Philadelphia bestowed its Bower Award on him for his development of MRI.
George Kauffman is professor emeritus at Fresno State. He received his Ph.D in chemistry from the University of Florida. He has written 17 books and more than 2,000 articles.