Godfrey Newbold Hounsfield: Inventor of the CT scanner

Arpan K. Banerjee
Solihull, England

 

Godfrey Hounsfield, smiling man with mustache and patterned necktie, who invented the CT scanner. Photo for article on history of CT scanner and history of CT scan
Godfrey Hounsfield. US National Library of Medicine. Via Wikimedia. Public domain.

The name Godfrey Hounsfield is not familiar to most healthcare professionals, yet his invention of the CT (Computerized Tomography) scanner is one of the greatest radiological advances since Röntgen discovered X-rays in 1895. Nearly all modern hospitals have a CT scanner, which enables doctors to make a more accurate diagnosis, especially in cardiology, pulmonology, neurology, oncology, and emergency medicine. It is invaluable in the management of trauma, and can be used to guide treatment.

Hounsfield was born in the UK in Nottinghamshire on 28 August 1919. He attended Magnus School, where he did not distinguish himself, nor did he proceed to a university education. He left school without any qualifications and at one time his teachers thought he might be academically delayed or impaired. So much for school reports for predicting future achievement and success! He preferred experimentation, making things and building mini rockets to test theoretical studies. Before the Second World War he joined the Royal Air Force, where he worked on radar and electronics and obtained a diploma in electronic engineering. After the war, he worked for Electric and Music Industries Ltd (EMI), the large business conglomerate and record producer in the UK, known for producing The Beatles’ albums. At EMI, Hounsfield became interested in computers and designed one of the first all-transistor computers in the UK, known as the EMIDEC 1100.

Hounsfield liked going on long walks and during one of these walks had the idea for the CT scanner. He came to the conclusion that to look inside the body, X-rays needed to be taken from all around the body. He set about work on producing one of the first prototype scanners, which enabled this to be done. He received funding from the Department of Health but was met with considerable skepticism along the way.

On 1 October 1971 a head scan was performed on a patient at the Atkinson Morley Hospital in London, obtaining the first images of the human brain. The radiologist working with Hounsfield was Dr. James Ambrose from Atkinson Morley Hospital in south London. The results were presented at radiology meetings and the audiences were astounded. Never had radiological images from inside the body like this been seen before. It became clear to most doctors that this was going to revolutionize medical practice.

CT scanners continued to be developed throughout the 1970s. Further technical advances were made during the next two decades, and today the modern scanner is capable of remarkable feats. Scans are done in a very short time and obtain exquisite, detailed images of the human body for diagnosis and treatment.

Hounsfield was a shy man who did not like the limelight or publicity that resulted from his discovery. He never married and remained a bachelor all his life. Honors inevitably came his way, including a Fellowship of the Royal Society of London in 1975 and the Nobel Prize in Medicine in 1979, which he shared with Alan Cormack, a South African physicist and mathematician who had done some of the important mathematical work on the principles of computed tomography. In 1980, the Radiological Society of North America (RSNA) awarded him their gold medal. Hounsfield was awarded a knighthood and made Sir Godfrey Hounsfield in 1981.

In later life, he remained interested in CT research and supported young researchers in this field. The Hounsfield unit (a measure of attenuation on CT scans) is named after him. He has also given his name to an annual lecture delivered at the scientific meeting of the British Institute of Radiology. He died at the age of 84 on 12 August 2004.

 

References

  1. Bates SR, Beckmann EC, Thomas AMK, Waltham RM. “Godfrey Hounsfield.” British Institute of Radiology, 2012.
  2. Banerjee AK. “Reflections on the Centenary of the Birth of Godfrey Hounsfield.” Royal College of Radiologists London Newsletter, Autumn 2019 (132), p.14.
  3. Thomas AMK and Banerjee AK. The History of Radiology. Oxford University Press, 2013.

 


 

ARPAN K. BANERJEE qualified in medicine at St Thomas’s Hospital Medical School, London. He was a consultant radiologist in Birmingham 1995–2019. He was President of the radiology section of the RSM 2005–2007 and on the scientific committee of the Royal College of Radiologists 2012–2016. He was Chairman of the British Society for the History of Radiology 2012–2017. He is Chairman of ISHRAD. He is author/co-author of papers on a variety of clinical, radiological, and medical historical topics and seven books, including Classic Papers in Modern Diagnostic Radiology (2005) and The History of Radiology (OUP 2013).

 

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