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British Nobel Prize winner Peter Mansfield was known for helping to invent MRI scanners, which he volunteered to personally test in the technology’s early stages. (David Jones/Associated Press)
British Nobel Prize winner Peter Mansfield was known for helping to invent MRI scanners, which he volunteered to personally test in the technology’s early stages. (David Jones/Associated Press)

OBITUARY

Peter Mansfield: MRI pioneer won a Nobel Prize Add to ...

Sir Peter Mansfield, who shared a Nobel Prize for discoveries that underpinned the invention of magnetic resonance imaging, the method of peering inside the human body that revolutionized medicine, died on Feb. 8. He was 83.

The University of Nottingham in England, where Dr. Mansfield had been a professor of physics, announced his death but did not say where he died. He lived in England.

Magnetic resonance imaging, or MRI, has enabled doctors to diagnose and examine injuries to ligaments, bones and organs without cutting open the body or risking the radiation dangers of X-rays.

“It’s hugely important,” said Charles Slichter, an emeritus physics professor at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. “It’s such an all-pervasive technique.” Dr. Mansfield worked in his laboratory as a postdoctoral researcher in the 1960s.

Dr. Mansfield was awarded the Nobel Prize in physiology or medicine in 2003, along with Paul C. Lauterbur, a professor at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. The two had worked independent of each other in studying magnetic resonance imaging.

Their research proceeded from an understanding that the nuclei of most atoms act as tiny magnets that line up when placed in a magnetic field. If the field is set at a specific strength, the atoms can absorb and emit radio waves.

Scientists initially used the technique, called nuclear magnetic resonance, or NMR, to study atoms and molecules, deducing properties from the emitted waves. In his early research, Dr. Mansfield developed NMR techniques to study crystals.

Later, in 1972, as he worked to refine and sharpen NMR data, he had a conversation with two colleagues about what applications such advances might lead to. He soon realized that if an object were placed in a nonuniform magnetic field – one that is stronger at one end than the other – scientists might be able to piece together a three-dimensional image of its atomic structure.

When Dr. Mansfield later presented this research at a conference, an audience member asked him how his work compared to findings by Mr. Lauterbur that had been recently published in Nature. Dr. Mansfield said he was not aware of that work.

Both scientists had developed techniques for turning NMR data into images – Mr. Lauterbur while he was at the State University of New York at Stony Brook.

When NMR imaging became common for medical use, the name was changed to magnetic resonance imaging; the word “nuclear” was dropped for fear that patients might think radioactive elements were being used.

Dr. Mansfield built a prototype of an MRI machine in 1978, and he volunteered to be the first person to be enclosed in it and scanned.

“He was the guinea pig,” said Richard Bowtell, a professor at Nottingham, who had been one of Dr. Mansfield’s graduate students. “He went into the scanner. There was the worry it would knock him dead.”

Dr. Mansfield’s calculations indicated no danger.

“In fact, the scan went well, and after 50 minutes and sweltering heat, I got out of the machine dripping like a wet rag,” he wrote in his 2013 autobiography, The Long Road to Stockholm.

Dr. Mansfield went on to seek faster scans that could capture the beating of a heart. He developed a technique called echo-planar imaging, which could assemble an image in less than a second instead of minutes or hours.

His techniques enabled scientists to take a rapid-fire succession of images that tracked the movement of internal organs. That led to another advance called functional MRI, which depicts activity in the brain.

“He worked on it for 10 years before it took off,” Mr. Bowtell said. “He was very driven. He was very able to follow an idea in the face of adversity.”

Peter Mansfield was born in London on Oct. 9, 1933. Partly because of a reorganization of the British school system, he did not finish high school.

A guidance counsellor asked him what he wanted to do. “Well, actually, I wouldn’t mind being a scientist,” Dr. Mansfield recalled saying. The counsellor, incredulous, suggested he seek a more practical vocation.

At 15, he became a printer’s apprentice and took classes five evenings a week to complete his secondary education. In the newspaper one day, he read an article about how someone had achieved his schoolboy dream of becoming a rocketeer. Intrigued, he wrote to the newspaper asking how he might become a rocketeer, too. He was advised to send an application to the government.

Impressed with him, officials at the government’s Rocket Propulsion Department hired him to be an assistant. He resigned his printer apprenticeship.

That job was interrupted by two years of military service. Then, at 23, he entered Queen Mary College at the University of London. He completed his undergraduate degree in 1959 and then a doctoral degree in physics, also at Queen Mary, in 1962. During college, his interest shifted from rockets to physics and nuclear magnetic resonance.

He worked with Mr. Slichter for two years at the University of Illinois before obtaining a faculty position at the University of Nottingham in 1964. He was a fellow of the Royal Society, London, and knighted by Queen Elizabeth II in 1993.

He leaves his wife, Jean; two daughters, Sarah and Gillian; and four grandchildren.

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