The Man behind the CAT Scan – Sir Godfrey Newbold Hounsfield

Sir Godfrey Newbold Hounsfield is the name behind the very popular CAT (or CT) scan our doctors rely on. Being an engineer and hailing from England, he worked on X-ray computed technology which helped in the easy diagnosis of many brain and body ailments.

In celebration of his birthday on August 28th, here is a look at his life, work, and achievements between the years 1919 and 2004.

Childhood and Early Life

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A very happy Dr. Godfrey Hounsfield is shown after holding a news conference 10/11, on the announcement from Stockholm that he jointly won the 1979 Nobel prize for medicine along with Allan McLeod Cormack of USA. The award was presented for their work in the development of computer-assisted x-ray techniques.

Hailing from Nottinghamshire, Sir Godfrey Newbold Hounsfield enjoyed most parts of his childhood in the small farm owned by his family. He was the youngest of the group of five children. However, since every one of his siblings pursued their interests, he was not expected to join in.

He spent most of his time studying the mechanical and electrical gadgets that were present on the farm. This included the generators, the threshing machines, and the likes. This is what triggered his interest in machines. Between the age of 11 and 18, Sir Godfrey Newbold Hounsfield engaged in some experiments that laid the foundation stone for his future success. Some of his adventurous activities included: Construction of an electrical recording machine, studying the principles of flight through various experiments, using water-filled tar barrels and acetylene to see how water jet propulsion takes place.

His parents got him admitted in Magnus Grammar School in Newark. While the school staff tried to educate him in general studies and culture, his primary interest lied in Physics and Mathematics. He could understand only these two subjects and respond well with these. This is pretty much how most of his childhood education went.

His Tryst with Airplanes

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This brain scanner, designed by Godfrey Hounsfield at EMI, was the first production model with which the first trials on patients were undertaken in 1971. These established CT (computerised tomography) scanning as a key imaging technology, particularly for the brain. (Photo by SSPL/Getty Images)

Right from his childhood days, Sir Godfrey Newbold Hounsfield showed a keen interest in airplanes. While he kept studying planes as a machine, he took the idea more seriously around the 2nd world war.

At this juncture, he had volunteered to participate as a reservist. There were plenty of books made available by the RAF for radio mechanics. When Hounsfield finally appeared for the trade test, he did so well that he was inducted as a Radar Mechanic Instructor.

He then changed base to shift to the Royal College of Science in South Kensington. This was followed by his journey to the Cranwell Radar School. He did seem to have some spare time in Cranwell Radar School. During this time, he engaged in two different activities. Firstly, he appeared for the City and Guilds examination in Radio Communications and passed it with flying colors.

Secondly, he also spent his time building large-screen oscilloscope equipment. For the latter, the English engineer was also awarded a Certificate of Merit. As a result of these factors, his work came into the limelight and was acknowledged by Air Vice-Marshal Cassidy.

When the 2nd World War finally ended, upon Cassidy’s recommendation, Hounsfield received an academic grant. This took him to Faraday House Electrical Engineering College in London.

Birth of the CAT scan Technology Idea

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X-Ray scanner with the team from L/R Godfrey Hounsfield (The inventor of the scanner), Tony Williams (Mechanical Designer), Peter Langstone (Electronics expert), Steve Bates (Computer Programmer), Chris Lemay (Mathematician who worked out the technique for the computer). April 1975 75-1905-008 (Photo by WATFORD/Mirrorpix/Mirrorpix via Getty Images)

During his research days, Sir Godfrey Newbold Hounsfield spent quite some time in the EMI Central Research Laboratories. His first project here started off on a high note but had to be abandoned midway since it was not a very commercially viable idea.

However, instead of being assigned to another project as a replacement, he was indeed asked to think of innovative research ideas. For this purpose, he kept himself busy with ideas of pattern recognition and how large its applications can be.

During this pursuit, in 1967, the idea of the CAT scan technology and computed tomography came to his mind. Of course, there was a long process between the birth of the idea and the actual implementation, but this is how Hounsfield came up with this thought.

His idea that the human brain could be scanned using multiple X-ray beams, creating high-resolution graphics eventually got him the Nobel Prize. This paved the way for the diagnosis of brain diseases and also led to the introduction of full-body X-ray scans.

Awards and Recognition

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British scientist Sir Godfrey Hounsfield (1919 – 2004), receives the “MacRobert Award” from Prince Philip at the Savoy Hotel, London, 25th November 1972. The prize is awarded annually ‘in recognition of the technological innovation contributing most significantly to the prestige and prosperity of the United Kingdom’. Hounsfield’s work is in the development of computer assisted tomography (CAT scanning). (Photo by Wesley/Keystone/Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

Sir Godfrey Newbold Hounsfield was well-acknowledged for this work and contribution to the field of Science. Here are some of the areas in which he got recognized: Lasker-DeBakey Clinical Medical Research Award – The Lasker Foundation presents a set of four awards annually to recognize those who work exceptionally well in the field of diseases diagnosis, prevention, treatment, and cure. Hounsfield was bestowed with this award in the year 1975.

Fellow of the Royal Society. Once again, in 1975, Sir Godfrey Hounsfield was awarded the Fellow of the Royal Society award. Individuals who are known to have made a “substantial contribution to the improvement of natural knowledge, including mathematics, engineering science and medical science” are awarded the Fellow of the Royal Society.

There have been a total of 8,000 Fellows so far, and other noted scientists securing the same recognition include Isaac Newton, Charles Darwin, Stephen Hawking and the likes.

Gairdner Foundation International Award – Come 1976, Hounsfield added another international award to his kitty. This is a very special award that is distributed at a special dinner in Canada where five individuals with outstanding contribution to medical science are recognized. Primarily, it acts as a precursor to the Nobel Prize.

Nobel Prizes in Physiology or Medicine

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(Photo by PA Images via Getty Images)

Finally, in 1979, Sir Godfrey Newbold Hounsfield was honored with the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine. This is the highest award given to anyone for outstanding contribution in the fields of Science and Medicine.

Hounsfield received this honor along with his partner and co-developer of computer-assisted tomography, Allan M. Cormack from South Africa. This innovation indeed led to significant improvement in humankind.

Apart from these, Hounsfield has several other honors to his name. In 1976, he was appointed the Commander of the Order of the British Empire. He received his knighthood in 1981. The Wilhelm Exner Medal and the Howard N. Potts Medal is given to him in 1974 and 1977 respectively.

Personal Life and Legacy

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British scientist Sir Godfrey Hounsfield (1919 – 2004), joint Nobel Laureate in Medicine, receives his prize from King Carl Gustaf at the award ceremony in Stockholm, 11th December 1979. Hounsfield’s prize was for his work in the development of computer assisted tomography (CAT scanning). (Photo by Keystone/Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

While we have an idea of how Sir Godfrey Newbold Hounsfield’s childhood looked like, buried in books and science, his youth was no different. He had very little time for anything apart from his experiments and research. As a result, he stayed a bachelor his entire life while focusing entirely on his work.

However, he did engage in some leisure activities. Trekking and skiing were some of his favorite pastimes. There was a tiny part of the adventure in him. Also, he fostered some interest in music. He spent some time playing the piano and enjoying his leisure time in music.