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Hard Day’s Night

How The Beatles helped create one of our greatest medical inventions

By CORY FRANKLIN M.D.
   This year is the 50th anniversary of The Beatles. Peering another 50 years into the future, what will their most important legacy to the world be? Sergeant Pepper? “Yesterday”? “I Want To Hold Your Hand”?.... 

.....Probably none of the above. The Beatles’ most important and unrealized contribution could be in medicine, not music. They were indirectly responsible for revolutionizing the world of medical diagnosis and treatment with their unknowing part in the development of an inven- tion that ushered in the modern era of radiology, the CT scanner. In 1960, three young Liverpool musicians, John Lennon, Paul McCartney and George Harrison, hired a drummer and a bassist and after several name changes became The Beatles. In early 1962, they failed miserably in a London audition with Decca Records, their first bid for a record contract.  After turning them down, a Decca executive told their manager “guitar groups are on their way out”.
   Soon after, sans bassist and with a new drummer, Ringo Starr, The Beatles were promoted by a brilliant young record producer, George Martin. Martin worked for Electrical & Musical Industries, EMI, the world’s largest record company. Soon thereafter, the band became the world’s most famous group of musicians. For EMI, they became a prolific cash cow, especially since their record contract, like those of most young musicians, was notoriously one-sided in the company’s favor.
   At that time, working at a small EMI subsidiary business developing radar and televisions, was an obscure, middle-aged man named Godfrey Hounsfield. Born in 1919, Hounsfield, a poor student, was intrigued by electronics, but left school early to work as a draftsman. If not for World War II, Hounsfield might have remained an unknown amateur electronics hobbyist.
   When the war broke out, the RAF employed him to work on radar and radio communications. He found work afterward with EMI, helping design the first British computers, quickly rendered obsolete by more advanced American computers. Hounsfield’s subsequent ideas all failed or had no commercial application. He drifted through the company as he approached 50.
   As the Beatles recorded Sergeant Pepper in 1967, EMI might have easily sacked Hounsfield, an aging, solitary inventor with no practical product, whose research was far removed from the company’s core business. But revenue The Beatles generated allowed EMI the luxury of retaining the quirky engineer. Virtually ignored, he was permitted to go off on his own in pursuit of new ideas.
   While on a weekend walk that year, Hounsfield thought of portraying cross-sectional images of the human body by sectioning tissues through a series of moving X-rays and recreating them by computer, a technique thousands of times more sensitive than standard X-rays. With no medical background, Hounsfield was unaware of theoretical literature in this field.
   With some support from the British government and seed money from a skeptical EMI (flush with cash from their Liverpool quartet), Hounsfield developed the first CT scanner. The British radiology community was dubious. Hounsfield wrote, “They were so steeped in their X-ray pictures they couldn’t really grasp the significance of this at all. They couldn’t grasp the sensitivity. They said ‘so what?’ They couldn’t understand they would be seeing much more. The result was discouraging.”
   After more EMI seed money, his machine diagnosed the first patients with brain lesions hitherto undiagnosed, at a Wimbledon Hospital in 1971. The lesions were confirmed at surgery. A year later, the clinical images were shown at a radiology conference in London. The first time the images were demonstrated in the United States, in Chicago, stunned audiences realized they were witnessing the dawning of a new age. Hounsfield’s machine was suddenly in demand all over North America.
   EMI, slow to recognize the project’s practical and commercial implications, was overtaken by American companies filling the orders pouring in. Hounsfield bemoaned his company’s shortsightedness as CT scanners were refined and proliferated worldwide. EMI soon abandoned the medical market.
   The rapid development of CT scanning was so revolutionary, that in 1979, less than a decade after the first patient demonstration, Godfrey Hounsfield, with no prestigious university background, won a Nobel Prize in Medicine /Physiology. He was later knighted by the Queen.
   A lifelong bachelor and modest man, he spent his remaining years taking solitary country walks contemplating new ideas. He disliked public speaking but when persuaded to do so, was besieged by top scientists from many disciplines eager to hear how he revolutionized radiology.
   It took nearly a century for the CT scan to overcome the technical limitations of the X-ray developed in 1895. No doubt one day new experimental techniques will replace the CT scanner. Nevertheless, it has saved countless lives and allowed millions of patients to avoid dangerous diagnostic procedures and exploratory surgery.
   Credit must go to Sir Godfrey Hounsfield, the shy but brilliant inventor who, virtually single-handedly, became one of the age’s greatest medical innovators.
   And don’t forget those four brash young men with long hair and electric guitars, who in their own way revolutionized medicine by singing, “Yeah, yeah, yeah”.

Published: June 07, 2010
Issue: Summer 2010 Urban Living