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Out of Time: Sir Peter Mansfield, The Nobel Prize Winning Notts Lecturer Who Pioneered MRI Scans

9 October 21 words: Daniela Loffreda
illustrations: Natalie Owen

From becoming a University of Nottingham lecturer to winning a Nobel Prize for his work on the technology behind MRI scans, Sir Peter Mansfield is one of the finest minds in Nottingham’s history. On what would have been his 88th birthday, we celebrate the life and legacy of a true genius who, despite his incredible achievements, always remained humble…

This month marks the birth of groundbreaking physicist and inventor Sir Peter Mansfield, a man who was, and undoubtedly remains, one of the most notable professors in the history of the University of Nottingham. It's people like Peter who have helped to make this Russell Group uni world class, and put Nottingham on the map in the process. From failing his eleven-plus exams and leaving school at fifteen, to being the only Notts scientist to receive a Nobel Prize for his contribution to MRI research, Mansfield’s story is one of sheer grit and determination to succeed against all odds. What started as a tearoom discussion at UoN and a study of a lupin stem from his garden developed into an MRI scan of the human body within just two years.

Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI) is the use of large magnet and radio waves to look at organs and other structures inside the human body. Its ability to diagnose illnesses, from ligament injuries to tumours, alongside its use for examining the brain and spinal cord, has made it a life-saving piece of kit. Unlike X-Rays and CT scans, it doesn't use damaging ionising radiation, and health complications are rare. 

Over 100million MRI scans are performed across the globe annually, making it a fundamental instrument for hospitals everywhere. And who would have thought that such a groundbreaking invention holds its origins in Nottingham, most specifically in the Physics department on the University Park campus? Throughout the seventies and eighties, Peter Mansfield and his team worked tirelessly to develop Nuclear Magnetic Resonance technology to change medical diagnosis for the better.

Sir Peter Mansfield was born on 9 October 1933 in Lambeth, London, to a humble family background. As a child of wartime Britain, he was evacuated three times - but he didn’t let the disruption dampen his curiosity for physics. During a brief return to the capital, Mansfield saw V-1 flying bombs and the first V-2 rockets over the skies of the city and instantly fell in love with science. 

But Mansfield’s route into academia was not plain sailing. The chaos of life during the Second World War understandably took a toll on his education and the youngster failed his eleven-plus exams. Instead of attending a grammar school as intended, he spent the rest of his education at the Central School in Peckham. When Mansfield expressed his interest in pursuing a career in science, he was advised to consider something less ambitious. 

Mansfield left school at fifteen years old and became an apprentice bookbinder at Ede and Fisher. Yet this was short lived, and he soon moved to Strakers as an apprentice compositor. 

It was not until Mansfield secured a job at the Ministry of Supply that he was able to rediscover and explore his love for science. Here he was encouraged to attend evening classes five nights a week at Borough Polytechnic, where he achieved his general certificate of education. After obtaining A-levels in physics and mathematics at Oxford Poly, the budding scientist went on to Queen Mary College at the University of London to secure an undergraduate degree in physics. 

Mansfield’s route into academia was not plain sailing. The chaos of life during the Second World War understandably took a toll and the youngster failed his eleven-plus exams

Mansfield thrived as an undergrad. He even initiated a new society during his studies, the Interplanetary Society (which we imagine had some mad socials), and edited their journal The Rocket. It was in his final year that he first took an interest in Nuclear Magnetic Resonance - or for those in the know, NMR - and achieved the small task of building an earth’s field proton magnetometer. No big deal. As you might expect, he graduated with a first class degree in 1959, and opted to stay at Queen Mary to pursue a PhD. 

From here, his interest in NMR only grew, and alongside his supervisor Jack Powles, Mansfield discovered that a pair of short radio-frequency pulses could generate an echo in a solid - scientists only knew this was possible in liquids at the time. This was a revelation and presented an opportunity for further research in the future. 

In 1962, both Mansfield’s academic and love life were flourishing. He completed his PhD and married Jean Margaret Kibble, with whom he had two children. The newlywed couple relocated to the University of Urbana in Illinois, but after a brief stint in his doctoral-fellowship post researching NMR of metals, Mansfield returned back to England in 1964 to take up a lectureship role at the University of Nottingham. 

UoN is one of the world's largest and most prestigious universities, proudly part of the 24 elite public research institutions in the UK known collectively as the Russell Group. Mansfield’s new appointment offered him the perfect opportunity to revisit what he had discovered during his PhD studies. 

During a tearoom chat with Peter Grannell and Allen Garroway in 1972, the lecturer wondered whether magnetic field gradients could be used to achieve spatial resolution - put simply, MRI could be used for the determination of crystal structures. 

Mansfield planned to build on the recent findings of American chemist and professor at the State University of New York, Paul Lauterbur. Lauterbur was the first researcher to successfully produce an image with NMR and apply it to medical practice. 

Mansfield imaged various objects including the stems of lupins from his garden. But the first notable scan came in 1977 when, accompanied by his team, he produced the first MRI image of a living human body part - a cross section of one of his PhD student’s fingers, Andrew Maudsley.

The success of this initial scan meant the group obtained further funding from the Medical Research Council to produce a magnet big enough to scan an entire human body. But there were widespread concerns about the dangers of using such a large magnetic field - it was feared that such intense exposure could cause heart attacks. Truly committed to his project, Mansfield volunteered to test the MRI and became the first human to have their abdomen imaged. This was a major success for the Nottingham team and provided motivation to push the team forward to fine tune their invention.

First on Mansifled’s list of improvements was the speed. The process of imaging was considerably slow. It had taken fifty minutes to complete a full body scan of Mansfield, so the lecturer set about developing what would be known as echo-planar imaging. EPI, which would be known as Mansfield’s brain child, would allow images to be formed 100 times faster than before, and would be particularly useful for cardiac scans. 

Truly committed to his project, Mansfield volunteered to test the MRI and became the first human to have their abdomen imaged

By the mid-eighties, Mansfield was hot property. Various universities scattered across the globe approached the renowned academic to aid him in his studies. Oxford University proposed funding to enable Mansfield to work with other world class scientists at the institution. Yet the appeal of Nottingham was too strong and he ultimately decided to stay in his role. 

EPI became a key focus for Mansfield for the rest of the decade. It was a complex technique to understand, yet one which had the potential to be highly rewarding. Faster imaging speeds meant more rapid diagnosis for patients. The MRI had already transformed modern science and consolidated itself as a fundamental piece of technology, so advancements in speed were highly welcomed. 

He took an early retirement in 1994 and was knighted the same year. Despite his departure, he remained a prominent figure in Nuclear Magnetic Resonance research and worked to try and reduce the noise of the scanner. He also continued his presence at the University of Nottingham where he became Professor Emeritus. Nine years later, Mansfield shared the Nobel prize with Paul Lauterbur for his seminal contributions to MRI. 

Mansfield passed away on 8 February 2017 at the age of 83. He spent his final years living in Beeston with his wife, pursuing his hobbies. He was a man dedicated to his work, but he still found time to sustain his interest in foreign languages and was particularly confident conversing in German and Russian. During retirement, he was also able to pursue his passion for aircraft and obtained his private pilot’s license. 

All those who knew Peter praise his dedication and passion for his work; he was determined and driven. Yet not only was he a great academic, but a kind human too. His colleagues note his humility and desire to connect not just on a professional, but personal level with all his staff.

Since his sad passing, the Imaging Centre at the University of Nottingham was named in memory of the influential work the inventor participated in during his life. Such impressive recognition is little surprise - Mansfield’s creations changed modern science, and countless people’s lives, for the better.

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