Lives of the fellows

Godfrey Newbold (Sir) Hounsfield

b.28 August 1919 d.12 August 2004
FRS(1975) Hon FRCP(1975) Dr Medicine (hc) Universitat Basel(1975) Hon FRCR(1976) CBE(1976) Hon DSc City(1976) Hon DSc London(1976) Hon DTech Loughborough(1976) Hon FRCS(1980) Kt(1981) Hon FEng(1994)

Sir Godfrey Hounsfield developed computed tomography, for which he won a Nobel prize in 1979. He was born in Newark-on-Trent in Nottinghamshire, the youngest son of Thomas Hounsfield, a steel engineer who took up farming. On the family farm, Hounsfield grew up surrounded by machinery, with which he became fascinated. He spent his childhood creating machines, including a home-made glider, and carrying out experiments and investigations. He was educated at Magnus Grammar School, where he was only interested in physics and mathematics.

At the outbreak of the Second World War, he joined the RAF as a volunteer reservist. He took the opportunity of studying the books which the RAF made available for radio mechanics and, having passed a trade test, was taken on as a radar mechanic instructor. He moved to the then RAF-occupied Royal College of Science at South Kensington and then to Cranwell Radar School. At Cranwell he spent his spare time building a large-screen oscilloscope. His talent was recognised by Air Vice Marshal J R Cassidy, who arranged a grant for him to attend the Faraday House Electrical Engineering College in London after the war, where he received a diploma.

In 1951, he joined EMI, where he worked for a while on radar and guided weapons, and later ran a small design laboratory. During this period, he developed an interest in computer technology, and in 1958 led a team building the first all-transistor computer, speeding up the transistors by providing them with a magnetic core. He transferred to the central research laboratories of EMI and was encouraged to think of new areas of research. He explored various aspects of pattern recognition and their potential and, in 1967, began to work on the idea which eventually became the EMI scanner and the technique of computed tomography. The prototype scanner was shown to be successful in 1971, when it was used to diagnose a brain cyst at Atkinson Morley’s Hospital, and by 1973 the first computed tomographic scanners were being used clinically, first for the brain and then, after modification, for whole-body imaging.

He received many honours for his work, including a CBE, a knighthood, the fellowship of the Royal Society and, in 1979, the Nobel prize in physiology or medicine (which he shared with Allan M Cormack of Tufts, who had published theoretical papers on the mathematics of computer assisted tomography). Hounsfield was made an honorary fellow of the Royal College of Physicians in 1975.

In his retirement he did voluntary work at the Royal Brompton and Heart hospitals. He remained unmarried. Apart from his work, his greatest pleasures were skiing, walking in the mountains and leading country rambles. He was fond of music and played the piano. He also enjoyed what he called ‘lively way-out discussions’. He died from lung disease.

RCP editor

[Brit.med.J., 2004 329 687; The Times 30 September 2004 Plarr’s Lives of the Fellows Online http://livesonline.rcseng.ac.uk/biogs/E000259b.htm – accessed 28 March 2011; Nobelprize.org http://nobelprize.org/medicine/laureates/1979/hounsfield-autobio.html – accessed 28 March 2011]

(Volume XII, page web)

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