Out of time: Sir Peter Mansfield, the Nobel Laureate and MRI pioneer Notts speaker


This month marks the birth of the revolutionary physicist and inventor Sir Peter Mansfield, a man who was, and undoubtedly remains, one of the most outstanding professors in the history of the University of Nottingham. It was people like Peter who helped make this Russell Group a world class unit and put Nottingham on the map in the process. From failing eleven and more exams and leaving school at age fifteen, to the only scientist Notts to receive a Nobel Prize for his contribution to MRI research, Mansfield’s story is a story of courage and determination to succeed through thick and thin. What started as a discussion in a teahouse at UoN and a study of a lupine stalk in his garden turned into an MRI of the human body in just two years.

Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI) is the use of a large magnet and radio waves to observe organs and other structures inside the human body. Its ability to diagnose disease, from ligament damage to tumors, as well as its use for examining the brain and spinal cord, made it a lifesaving kit. Unlike X-rays and CT scans, it does not use harmful ionizing radiation, and health complications are rare.

Over 100 million MRI scans are performed worldwide each year, making it a fundamental instrument for hospitals around the world. And who would have thought that such a revolutionary invention has its origins in Nottingham, specifically in the physics department on the University Park campus? Throughout the 1970s and 1980s, Peter Mansfield and his team worked tirelessly to develop nuclear magnetic resonance technology to improve medical diagnosis.

Sir Peter Mansfield was born on October 9, 1933 in Lambeth, London, to a modest family. As a child of wartime Britain, he was evacuated three times – but he didn’t let the disturbance dampen his curiosity in physics. During a brief return to the capital, Mansfield saw V-1 flying bombs and the first V-2 rockets above the city sky and immediately fell in love with science.

But Mansfield’s path in academia was not straightforward. The chaos of life during WWII naturally took a toll on his upbringing and the youngster failed his eleven and more exams. Instead of attending high school as planned, he spent the rest of his studies at Central School in Peckham. When Mansfield expressed interest in pursuing a career in science, he was advised to consider something less ambitious.

Mansfield left school at age fifteen and became an apprentice bookbinder with Ede and Fisher. Still, this was short-lived, and he soon moved to Strakers as an apprentice songwriter.

It wasn’t until Mansfield got a job with the Supply Department that he was able to rediscover and explore his love for science. Here he was encouraged to attend evening classes five evenings a week at Borough Polytechnic, where he obtained his general education certificate. After earning a bachelor’s degree in physics and mathematics from Oxford Poly, the aspiring scientist went to Queen Mary College at the University of London to earn an undergraduate degree in physics.

Mansfield’s road to academia was not straightforward. The chaos of life during WWII naturally took its toll and the youngster failed his eleven plus exams

Mansfield flourished as an undergraduate student. He even started a new society during his studies, the Interplanetary Society (which we imagine had crazy social connections), and edited their journal The rocket. It was during his senior year that he first became interested in nuclear magnetic resonance – or for connoisseurs, NMR – and completed the small task of building a proton magnetometer for the field. earthly. Not serious. As you might expect, he earned a first class degree in 1959 and chose to stay at Queen Mary to pursue a doctorate.

From there, his interest in NMR only grew and, alongside his supervisor Jack Powles, Mansfield discovered that a pair of short RF pulses could generate an echo in a solid – scientists only knew this was possible in liquids at the time. It was a revelation and an opportunity for further research in the future.

In 1962, Mansfield’s academic and love life was flourishing. He completed his doctorate and married Jean Margaret Kibble, with whom he had two children. The newlywed couple moved to the University of Urbana in Illinois, but after a brief stint in his doctoral position in metal NMR research, Mansfield returned to England in 1964 to take on a lecturer position. at the University of Nottingham.

UoN is one of the largest and most prestigious universities in the world, proudly one of 24 elite public research institutions in the UK known collectively as the Russell Group. Mansfield’s new appointment offered him the perfect opportunity to revisit what he had discovered during his doctoral studies.

At a tea room with Peter Grannell and Allen Garroway in 1972, the speaker wondered if magnetic field gradients could be used to obtain spatial resolution – in layman’s terms, MRI could be used for the determination of crystal structures.

Mansfield planned to build on the recent findings of American chemist and State University of New York professor Paul Lauterbur. Lauterbur was the first researcher to successfully produce an NMR image and apply it to medical practice.

Mansfield photographed various objects, including the stems of lupines in his garden. But the first notable scan came in 1977 when, Accompanied by his team, he produced the first MRI image of a living part of the human body – a cross section of one of the fingers of his doctoral student, Andrew Maudsley.

The success of this initial analysis meant that the group secured additional funding from the Medical Research Council to produce a magnet large enough to analyze an entire human body. But there were widespread concerns about the dangers of using such a large magnetic field – there were concerns that such intense exposure could cause heart attacks. Truly committed to his project, Mansfield volunteered to test the MRI and became the first human to have his abdomen imaged. It was a major success for the Nottingham team and provided motivation to push the team forward to fine-tune their invention.

First on Mansifled’s list of improvements was speed. The imaging process was considerably slow. It had taken fifty minutes to perform a full body scan of Mansfield, so the lecturer began to develop what would be known as echo-planar imaging. The PPE, reportedly known as Mansfield’s Brain Child, would allow images to be formed 100 times faster than before, and would be particularly useful for heart scans.

Truly committed to his project, Mansfield volunteered to test the MRI and became the first human to have his abdomen imaged

In the mid-eighties, Mansfield was a highly prized property. Various universities scattered around the world have approached the famous scholar to help him with his studies. The University of Oxford has offered funding to allow Mansfield to work with other world-class scientists at the institution. Still, Nottingham’s appeal was too strong and he ultimately decided to stay in his role.

PPE became a key focus for Mansfield for the remainder of the decade. It was a complex technique to understand, but one that had the potential to be very rewarding. Faster imaging speeds meant faster diagnosis for patients. MRI had already transformed modern science and consolidated itself as a fundamental piece of technology, so advancements in speed were very well received.

He took early retirement in 1994 and was knighted that same year. Despite his departure, he remained a leading figure in nuclear magnetic resonance research and worked to try to reduce scanner noise. He also continued his presence at the University of Nottingham where he became professor emeritus. Nine years later, Mansfield shared the Nobel Prize with Paul Lauterbur for his fundamental contributions to MRI.

Mansfield died on February 8, 2017 at the age of 83. He spent his last years living in Beeston with his wife, pursuing his hobbies. He was a man devoted to his work, but he still found time to maintain his interest in foreign languages ​​and conversed particularly at ease in German and Russian. Upon retirement, he was also able to pursue his passion for airplanes and obtained his private pilot’s license.

Everyone who knew Peter praised his dedication and passion for his work; he was determined and motivated. Yet not only was he a great scholar, but also a kind man. Her colleagues note her humility and desire to connect not only professionally, but also personally with all her staff.

Since his sad passing, the University of Nottingham Imaging Center has been named in memory of the influential work in which the inventor was involved during his lifetime. Such impressive recognition is not surprising – Mansfield’s creations have changed modern science, and the lives of countless people, for the better.


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