Sir Godfrey N Hounsfield (1919-2004) pioneered the CT scanner making him one of the greats in the history of radiology. For his work, he received the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine in 1979. This was remarkable because he had had no previous experience of working in the medical field but was an engineer who hitherto had spent his career developing computers and radar.
Godfrey Newbold Hounsfield was born 28th August 1919 in Nottinghamshire, UK, the last of five children. Growing up on a small farm near Newark, UK 2, he left school at age 16 with no qualifications, however he had always demonstrated a keen interest in machinery on his family's farm.
Godfrey volunteered for the Royal Air Force in October 1939, at the start of World War II, becoming a radar instructor. After the war ended, Air Vice-Marshal John Cassidy supported Godfrey's application for a grant to study at Faraday House Electrical Engineering College, from which he graduated with a diploma.
Godfrey joined the Electric and Musical Industries (EMI) company, where he worked on radar and computers until 1967. He led the design team for the EMIDEC 1100 computer which was successfully launched in 1957, mostly using skills which he had taught himself or learnt in the Royal Air Force 1.
Invention of computed tomography
In 1967 Godfrey’s previous projects ceased to be of interest to EMI because of changes in company strategy. He was asked to suggest a new line of work involving pattern recognition, and he suggested what eventually became CT scanning 2.
Hounsfield proposed that by using x-rays one could take multiple exposures around an object to determine its internal structure.
EMI was unenthusiastic because they had no significant medical business, Godfrey had no medical knowledge, and his proposal was a high-risk leap beyond existing technology. So they sought external funding, and Godfrey managed to get a small amount of funding from the UK Government Department of Health and Social Security 3. His struggles for financing continued for the next four years, and he also had to struggle against apathy from most of the medical profession. Visits to radiologists at many leading hospitals found that almost everyone (with the notable exceptions of James Ambrose, Louis Kreel, Evan Lennon and Frank Doyle) thought that his proposal was pointless 2.
James Ambrose, a neuroradiologist at Atkinson Morley Hospital, in London, would go on to assist Hounsfield in the various prototypes of the CT scanner. Initially the original prototype CT scanner was used to examine brains obtained from a histopathology museum. However, preserved brains were not the ideal candidates for mimicking the living human brain. Bovine brains were sought as a solution to this problem. Unfortunately, the electric shock given to the cows in the abattoir resulted in diffuse cerebral haemorrhage, again not a good model for the living human brain. Finally, the idea to use ‘kosher’ slaughtered cows came into being, with cows killed under strict kosher guidelines not suffering widespread haemorrhage, resulting in the first promising scans of the brain 2.
The first clinical CT scan was conducted on 1st October 1971 at the Atkinson Morley Hospital, demonstrating a well-defined cyst 1-3.
Everything changed after he presented his initial CT scans at conferences in London in April 1972 and New York in May 1972. As soon as people saw these images, they realised the groundbreaking potential of this new technique. He was the first to show discrimination between soft tissues, tumours and blood clots in clinical use at acceptable cost and dose 1.
Hounsfield was awarded the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine in 1979. The Nobel was co-awarded to Allan M Cormack, a South African physicist who, unbeknownst to Hounsfield had developed the theoretical mathematics underpinning the CT scanner 1-6.
Other accolades included:
- Barclay Prize of the British Institute of Radiology in 1974
- Fellow of the Royal Society (FRS) in 1975
- Commander of the Order of the British Empire (CBE) in 1976
- Knighted in 1981
Hounsfield created the Hounsfield unit (HU) a dimensionless quantity used to express a linear transformation of the measured attenuation coefficient in the form of a simple number. In the early years, radiologists would use large paper printouts of Hounsfield units to interpret brain scans 2.
Godfrey thought in an unusual way which he described as “you’ve just got to use the absolute minimum of maths but have a tremendous lot of intuition” 3.This is easy to say, but very hard to get right. He used a lot of pictures and mental models, a lot of analogies, and he had a lot of curiosity about how everything in the world worked. This was uncomfortable for academics. How could this highly mathematical field be opened up by someone who was not a mathematician, and not even an academic, but a man who relied primarily upon intuition?
Sir Godfrey Hounsfield rarely used his title, preferring just Godfrey. He was gentle, generous, modest and unambitious, but doggedly persistent in his work. He liked working in small teams, but he was always slightly outside the formal structure—a man who set his own rules. Although some people of his seniority rarely talked to those beneath them, he would talk to anybody who was interested in his work, whether it was the cleaner, the panel-beater or the managing director. He was sociable: people who met him would see him as an amiable person who helped to wash up the coffee cups, and he would prefer not to tell them of his past achievements.
From his teenage years onward he was interested in how things worked, and in how science and engineering could help to improve the world. He wanted to pass this enthusiasm on to the next generation. Although he dreaded public speaking, in February 1983, he agreed to open a new library at his old school, Magnus Grammar School, and speak to the pupils there. He told them that “each new discovery brings with it the seeds of other, future, inventions. There are many discoveries, probably just around the corner, waiting for someone to bring them to life. Could this possibly be you?” 4.
This article is based, with permission, on a biography 1 which clarifies some misunderstandings. For example, Godfrey joined EMI in 1949 (not 1951), his studies at Faraday House did not reach university level, and the development of CT was not linked to The Beatles. He worked on CT from first principles, independently of predecessors (including J Radon, G Frank, C Tetel’Baum, R Bracewell, W Oldendorf, D Kuhl, and A Cormack). Godfrey’s debt was to others: a physics teacher called Mr Ashton, the RAF and John Cassidy, and Alan Blumlein.
- 1. Bates SR, Beckmann EC, Thomas AMK, Waltham RM. Godfrey Hounsfield. British Institute of Radiology. ISBN:0905749758. Read it at Google Books - Find it at Amazon
- 2. Petrik, Vladimir, Apok, Vinothini, Britton, Juliet A., Bell, B Anthony, Papadopoulos, Marios C.. Godfrey Hounsfield and the Dawn of Computed Tomography. (2006) Neurosurgery. 58 (4): 780. doi:10.1227/01.NEU.0000204309.91666.06 - Pubmed
- 3. Guang-Zhong Yang and D. N. Firmin, "The birth of the first CT scanner," in IEEE Engineering in Medicine and Biology Magazine, vol. 19, no. 1, pp. 120-125, Jan/Feb 2000. doi: 10.1109/51.816253
- 4. Nobel Foundation. "Autobiography." 1979. Available at nobelprize.org.
- 5. Sűsskind C. The invention of computed tomography. In “History of technology 1981.” Hall AR, Smith N, editors. London: Mansell Publishing; 1981. pp. 39-80.
- 6. Speech is available from GNHounsfield.org PDF here
History of radiology
- key milestones
- 1895: Wilhelm Roentgen detects x-rays
- 1896: Antoine Henri Becquerel discovers radioactivity
- 1896: Sydney Rowland founds the first radiology journal, Archives of Clinical Skiagraphy
- 1896: Thomas Alva Edison invents the first commercially-available fluoroscope
- 1913: Albert Salomon commences research leading to mammography
- 1927: Egas Moniz develops cerebral angiography
- 1934: Frederic and Irene Joliot-Curie artificially produce radioisotopes
- 1936: John Lawrence uses phosphorus-32 to treat leukaemia
- 1950s: David Edmund Kuhl invents Positron Emission Tomography (PET)
- 1953: Sven-Ivar Seldinger develops his famous eponymous technique
- 1957: Ian Donald invents ultrasound
- 1964: Charles Dotter introduces image-guided intervention
- 1965: Benjamin Felson publishes Felson's Principles of Chest Roentgenology
- 1972: Godfrey Hounsfield introduces the CT scanner (co-developed with Allan M Cormack)
- 1977: Raymond Vahan Damadian builds the first commercial MRI scanner
- 2005: Frank Gaillard creates Radiopaedia.org :)
- 2012: inaugural International Day of Radiology
- key figures in the history of radiology
- history of modalities
- plain radiography
- nuclear medicine
- interventional radiology
- history of radiology journals
- history of radiology organisations
- Royal Australian and New Zealand College of Radiologists (RANZCR)
- United Kingdom
- British Institute of Radiology (BIR)
- Royal College of Radiologists (RCR)
- School and College of Radiographers (SCoR)
- United States
- American Roentgen Ray Society (ARRS)
- Radiological Society of North America (RSNA)
- American College of Radiology (ACR)
- European Society of Radiology (ESR)
computed tomography (CT)
- CT technology
- CT image reconstruction
- CT image quality
- CT dose
- CT contrast
- patient-based artifacts
- physics-based artifacts
- hardware-based artifacts
- helical and multichannel artifacts
- CT safety
- history of CT