Allan Macleod Cormack

Last revised by Aimee Johnston on 24 Feb 2021

Allan M Cormack (1924-1998) was a South African-American physicist who was instrumental in the development of CT 1,3.

Allan Macleod Cormack was born on 23 February 1924 in Johannesburg, South Africa. His parents - teacher Amelia MacLeod and engineer George Cormack - had both emigrated to South Africa from Scotland just before the Great War. Cormack grew up in Cape Town, where he was a pupil at Rondebosch Boys’ High School. He demonstrated aptitude in astronomy, debating and tennis. He later said that he gained his love for mathematics and physics due to popular mainstream works by two British astrophysicists, Sir Arthur Eddington and Sir James Jeans 3.

Cormack graduated in physics from Cape Town University in 1944. In 1947 he became a research student at the Cavendish Laboratory, based at Cambridge University in the UK, where he worked with Otto Frisch 3.

In 1949, he returned to South Africa and worked at the Groote Schuur Hospital on radiation absorption from 1950 to 1956 3.

Cormack published his notable paper 'Representation of a function by its line integrals, with some radiological applications' in 1963 in the Journal of Applied Physics 1,2.

His interest in the theoretical aspects of x-ray technology, while working at the Groote Schuur Hospital in Cape Town, led to important theoretical publications in this new area and the subsequent sharing of the 1979 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine, with Godfrey Hounsfield, for the development of CT.

In 1957, despite his lack of a doctorate, he became a Professor at Tufts University, USA before becoming the Chairman of the Physics department from 1968-1976. Cormack died on 7 May 1998 from cancer, at the age of 74 3.

  • Hosea Ballou Medal for Distinguished Service, Tufts University (1978) 3
  • Gold Medal of Merit, University of Cape Town 3
  • Nobel Prize, with Godfrey Hounsfield, for the development of CT (1979) 1,3
  • Honorary Doctorate, Tufts University (1980) 3
  • US President George Bush awarded him the National Medal of Science in the physical sciences “for his scientific work including the development of computer assisted tomography...” (1990) 3
  • Order of Mapungubwe, South Africa’s highest civilian honor (1998): posthumously 3

Although lesser known than Hounsfield, Cormack's pioneering work on axial tomography was a major contribution to the development of CT scanning.

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