I’m looking through you

This month marks the 50th anniversary of The Beatles’ first single, Love me do, and the beginning of their contribution to medical science.

It goes like this: in 1967, Godfrey N. Hounsfield, an engineer working for Electric and Musical Industries Ltd, came up with a way to see soft tissues of the body with X-rays. On a conventional X-ray, bones are much easier to see, with organs like lungs and the brain being only indistinct blurs. But you can get some idea of them by comparing X-rays taken from different sides, like viewing the lungs from the chest and the back.

Hounsfield’s idea was to scan using X-rays from all angles around a person, and then put them together with the aid of computers. This technique came to be called computed tomography, or a CT scan. You’ve probably seen them before: a patient lies on a bed and then an enormous X-ray machine rotates around them. Each scan takes a 2-dimensional slice, and by putting them together it’s possible to build a full, 3-dimensional, even real-time, view of the body’s inner workings.

The first scan by a commercial CT machine was performed on 1 October 1971 in Atkinson Morley Hospital in Wimbledon, England. Eight years later, Hounsfield was awarded the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine for his achievements, sharing it with Allan M. Cormack (Cormack was an American physicist who initially developed a theory of computer-assisted tomography, but his method wasn’t used in the commercial systems).

What does this have to do with The Beatles? Well, Hounsfield’s employer is abbreviated as EMI, which of course was The Beatles’ record label. It was thanks to the gold mine of their musical success – about 200 million singles – that EMI was able to fund Hounsfield’s research over four years to develop his device from a prototype into something that could be used as a hospital.

The Beatles’ music has inspired many people, but their scientific contribution has saved more lives.

The Beatles greatest gift… is to science (The Whittington Hospital NHS Trust)
Goodman LR 2010, “The Beatles, the Nobel Prize, and CT scanning of the chest”, Radiologic Clinics of North America, vol. 48, no. 1, pp. 1-7, PMID: 19995626

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