Lindau, Germany (Scicasts) - On February 8, 2017, Peter Mansfield died in Nottingham at the age of 83. Undoubtedly, he will continue to cast a long shadow over the field which he helped to found.

Peter Mansfield was fascinated by science from an early age but at the age of 15, he left school with no formal education having been told that he should set his sights on a less ambitious vocation.  Mansfield would go on to receive the Nobel Prize for Physiology or Medicine for his life’s work: the application of magnetic resonance imaging in human medicine. 

peter mansfield photo

Sir Peter Mansfield after a talk at Leipzig University. Image: Prolineserver, CC BY-SA 2.0

Mansfield was one of the first to come up with the idea that nuclear magnetic resonance (NMR) could be used to elucidate atomic structure, a theory which he ultimately went on to prove by personally undergoing the first ever full body NMR scan, and which he followed up with the meticulous mathematical analysis that allowed him to translate radio frequency into three-dimensional images. Nowadays, the technique known as magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) is common practise in hospitals.

Mansfield and his team also pioneered so-called echo-planar imaging (EPI), an advancement of MRI that allows generation of images within the timeframe of milliseconds, thus enabling visualization of movement, such as that of a beating heart. Who was the man whose intellect and zeal revolutionized the world of medicine forever?

After leaving school, Mansfield first carried out an apprenticeship as a printer in post-war London, but he was not to be deterred from his love of science. His fascination with rockets led him to write to a national newspaper to ask how he may work in that field. The editor directed him to the Department of Rocket Propulsion in the British government’s Ministry of Supply. Here, he was hired as an assistant and eventually decided to take night classes to complete his secondary education.

At the age of 23, Mansfield was awarded a place at Queen Mary College at the University of London. Upon completing his degree in physics, he embarked on a PhD degree there in the group of Jack Powles studying NMR. His initial work with Powles and as a postdoctoral researcher in the lab of Charles P. Schlichter at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign saw him apply the technique to polymers and metals. In 1964, he was appointed as lecturer in physics at the University of Nottingham, where he remained until his death.

In his first independent forays, Mansfield, together with his graduate student, built a multi-pulse spectrometer that could emit trains of pulses. They applied their newly constructed device to analyze the NMR of various solid substances, but by the early 1970s his lab had analyzed and exhausted the University’s entire supply of fluorinated compounds.

One morning during a tea break with colleagues in which they were lamenting the lack of material on which to perform their analysis, Mansfield started to think about the possibility of applying NMR to elucidating atomic structure. Sometime later, while presenting his first results on this application of NMR at a conference in Poland, a perceptive colleague pointed out that his results were very similar to those obtained by Paul Lauterbur, at that time at the State University of New York at Stony Brook, in liquids.

Mansfield next turned to organic matter, starting small with plants and vegetables, before eventually testing a living organism: the fingers of one of his PhD students. (His own fingers were not thin enough to fit inside the NMR apparatus.) For Mansfield, this was only the beginning, however. What he now wanted to know was: would the technique allow the scanning of an entire living organism, and what applications might this have for medicine?

He secured the necessary funding to build a whole-body scanning apparatus and, finally, one day in 1978, just before travelling to an important NMR conference in the United States, decided to take matters into his own hands: he himself would be the first live experimental subject. This was despite the fact that the analysis of another imaging expert indicated that the procedure could be fatal. Fifty minutes later Mansfield emerged, and although he was unscathed, the heat that was generated meant that he was dripping with sweat. He packed the film into his luggage and got it developed at a small photographic shop close to the conference venue so as to be able to present the first NMR-generated images of an entire human body.

The next frontier to be conquered was the imaging of moving organs, such as the heart. Mansfield and his lab succeeded in developing high-speed real-time imaging, EPI, which vastly reduced the time needed for scanning and producing images, paving the way for the technique of functional MRI, which allows researchers to monitor brain activity.

Mansfield’s seminal contributions to the field were recognized by the conferral of a knighthood by the Queen of England in 1993 and the joint award, together with Paul Lauterbur, of the 2003 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine.

Through its ability to rapidly and safely provide high-quality images of internal organs MRI has transformed medical diagnostics. In fact, the method is not limited to diagnosing disease: it can also reveal the dynamics of normal physiological processes. For instance, specialized applications of MRI allow neuroscientists to measure brain activity during the performance of cognitive tasks.

MRI is underpinned by NMR, a phenomenon in which certain nuclei, usually those of hydrogen atoms, emit radio frequency when they are exposed to a magnetic field. Sensors then detect the emission of these frequencies, allowing the generation of three-dimensional images of internal organs.

Neysan Donnelly is a science writer and editor based on the lake of Constance in Germany.