Godfrey N. Hounsfield Biography (1919-)

Nationality
English
Gender
Male
Occupation
biomedical engineer

Godfrey Newbold Hounsfield was born August 28, 1919, in Newark, England, theyoungest of five children of a steel-industry engineer turned farmer. He graduated from London's City and Guilds College in 1938 after studying radio communication. When World War II erupted, Hounsfield volunteered for the Royal Air Force (RAF), where he studied and later lectured on the new and vital technology of radar at the RAF's Cranwell Radar School. After the war he resumed his education, and received a degree in electrical and mechanical engineeringfrom Faraday House Electrical Engineering College in 1951. Upon graduation, Hounsfield joined Thorn EMI (Electrical and Musical Industries) Ltd., an employer he has remained with his entire professional life.

At Thorn EMI, Hounsfield worked on improving radar systems and then on computers. In 1959, a design team led by Hounsfield finished production of Britain's first large all-transistor computer, the EMIDEC 1100. Hounsfield moved on to work on high-capacity computer memory devices, and was granted a British patent in 1967 titled "Magnetic Films for Information Storage."

Hounsfield's work in this period included the problem of enabling computers to recognize patterns, thus allowing them to "read" letters and numbers. In 1967, he envisioned a medical diagnostic system in which an x-ray machine would image thin "slices" through the patient's body and a computer would process the slices into an accurate representation which would display the tissues, organs, and other structures in much greater detail than a single x raycould produce. Computers available in 1967 were not sophisticated enough tomake such a machine practical, but Hounsfield continued to refine his idea and began working on a prototype scanner. He enlisted two radiologists, James Ambrose and Louis Kreel, who assisted him with their practical knowledge of radiology and also provided tissue samples and test animals for scans. The project attracted support from the British Department of Health and Social Services, and in 1971 a test machine was installed at Atkinson Morely's Hospital inWimbledon. It was highly successful, and the first production model followeda year later. These original scanners were designed for imaging the brain, and were hailed by neurosurgeons as a great advance. Before the computerized axial tomography (CAT) scanner, doctors wanting a detailed brain x ray had tohelp their equipment see through the skull by such dangerous techniques as pumping chemicals or air into the brain. As head of EMI's Medical Systems section, Hounsfield continued to improve the device, working to lower the radiation exposure required, sharpen the images produced, and develop larger models which could image any part of the body, not just the head. This "whole body scanner" went on the market in 1975.

CAT scanners generated some resistance because of their expense: even the earliest models cost over $300,000, and improved versions several times as much.Despite this, the machines were so useful they quickly became standard equipment at larger hospitals around the world. The scanner won Hounsfield and hiscompany more than thirty awards, including the MacRobert Award, Britain's highest honor for engineering. In 1979, Hounsfield's collection of scientific tributes was topped off with the Nobel Prize. That year's Nobel was shared with Allan M. Cormack, an American nuclear physicist who had separately developed the equations involved in reconstructing an image via computer. A surprising feature of the selection was that neither man had a degree in medicine or biology, or a doctorate in any field.

Hounsfield moved on to positions as chief staff scientist and then senior staff scientist for Thorn EMI. He continued to improve the CAT scanner, workingto develop a version which could take an accurate "snapshot" of the heart between beats. He has also contributed to the next step in diagnostic technology, nuclear magnetic resonance imaging. In 1986, he became a consultant to Thorn EMI's Central Research Laboratories in Middlesex, near his longtime home inTwickenham.

Recent Updates

August 12, 2004: Hounsfield died on August 12, 2004, in Kingston uponThames, England. He was 84. Source: New York Times, August 20,2004, p. A21; Daily Telegraph, August 17, 2004, p. 1.

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