Hats off to Sir Peter Mansfield (1933-2017)


Sir Peter Mansfield left school with no qualifications to become one of the most eminent scientists in the world of physics. Here, Dr Adrian Thomas pays tribute to the man who lived through World War Two and with dogged determination forged his way in science to become a distinguished and recognised physicist who played a major part in the story of MRI.


Sir Peter Mansfield was born on 9 October 1933 in Lambeth in London, and grew up in Camberwell. His mother had worked as a waitress in a Lyons Corner House in the West End of London, and his father first worked as a labourer in the South Metropolitan Gas Company, and then as a gas fitter. Mansfield recounted being sent with other children on a holiday to Kent for disadvantaged London children by the Children’s Country Holiday Fund.

Peter Mansfield was 5 years old when the war broke out in 1939. He remembers standing with his father at the entrance of an air raid shelter watching anti-aircraft shells exploding around German bombers caught in the searchlights. As the Blitz intensified he was evacuated from the dangers of the capital, as were so many other London children. With his brother he was sent to Devon, where he was assigned to Florence and Cecil Rowland who lived in Babbacombe, Torquay. The Rowlands were called Auntie and Uncle, and Mansfield  attended the nearby junior school. Cecil Rowland was a carpenter and joiner by trade, and encouraged Peter to develop his practical skills by giving him a toolbox, and tools were slowly acquired. He obviously obtained some proficiency since with some guidance he made several wooden toys which he was able to sell at an undercover market and a toyshop in Torquay. His life was not without danger even outside London, and in early 1944,whilst out playing, he saw a German twin-engined Fokke-Wulf plane flying at rooftop level. The tail gunner was spraying bullets everywhere, and he rapidly took shelter behind a dry-stone wall.

On his return to London his secondary schooling was at Peckham Central, moving  to the William Penn School in Peckham. Shortly before he left school at 15 he had an interview with a careers adviser. Peter said that he was interested in science, and the adviser responded that since he was unqualified that he should try something less ambitious. He was interested in printing and so took up an apprentice in the Bookbinding Department of Ede and Fisher in Fenchurch Street in the City of London, and whilst there he took evening classes.   Developing an interest in rockets he was offered a position at the Rocket Propulsion Department (RPD) at Westcott, near Aylesbury.

In 1952 he was called up into the Army for his National Service, where he joined the Engineers. The Army allowed him to develop his interest in science. On demobilization he returned to Westcott and completed his A levels. This enabled him to apply for a special honors degree course in physics at Queen Mary College in London. In 1959 he obtained his BSc, and three years later he was awarded his PhD in physics. From 1962 to 1964 he was Research Associate at the Department of Physics at the University of Illinois, and in 1964 was appointed Lecturer at the Department of Physics at the University of Nottingham.

During a sabbatical in Heidelberg in 1972 Mansfield corresponded with his student, Peter Grannell in Nottingham, and became interested in what became MRI, presenting his first paper in 1973 at the First Specialized Colloque Ampère. Mansfield developed a line scanning technique, and this was used to scan the finger of one of one of his early research students, Dr Andrew Maudsley. The scan times required for these finger images varied between 15 and 23 minutes. These were the first images of a live human subject and they were presented to the Medical Research Council, which in 1976 was reviewing the work of various groups including those in Nottingham and Aberdeen.


In 1977 the team at Nottingham, which included the late Brian Worthington, successfully  produced an image of a wrist. The following year Mansfield presented his first  abdominal image. In 1979 Peter Mansfield was appointed Professor of Physics at the University of Nottingham. As the Nobel Committee emphasized, the importance of the work of Peter Mansfield was that he further developed the utilization of gradients in the magnetic field. Mansfield demonstrated how the signals could be mathematically analyzed, which resulted in the development of  a practical  imaging technique. Mansfield also demonstrated how to achieve extremely fast imaging times by developing echo-planar imaging. This is all very impressive for a boy who left school at 15 with no qualifications.


Peter Mansfield was awarded many prizes and awards including:

the Gold Medal of the Society of Magnetic Resonance in Medicine (1983); Fellow of the Royal Society (1987); the Silvanus Thompson Medal of the British Institute of Radiology (1988); the International Society of Magnetic Resonance (ISMAR) prize (jointly with Paul Lauterbur)(1992);  Knighthood (1993); Honorary Fellow of the Royal College of Radiology and Honorary Member of the British Institute of Radiology (1993);  the Gold Medal of the European Congress of Radiology and the European Association of Radiology (1995);  Honorary Fellow of the Institute of Physics (1997); the Nobel Prize for Medicine together with Paul Lauterbur (2003);   Lifetime Achievement Award presented by Prime Minister Gordon Brown (2009).

His autobiography The Long Road to Stockholm, The Story of MRI was published in 2013. This is an interesting read, particularly in relation to his early years, and is recommended reading for everyone interested in the radiological sciences. This is a revealing account of a remarkable life. Whilst we may discuss the complexities of the development of MRI and exactly who should have received the Nobel Prize, there can be no doubt about his major contributions. MRI has made, and is making major contributions to health care. He died age 83 on 8 February 2017.

The University of Nottingham has set up an online book of condolence http://www.nottingham.ac.uk/news/sir-peter-mansfield/

About Dr Adrian Thomas, Honorary Historian BIR

Dr Thomas was a medical student at University College, London. He was taught medical history by Edwin Clarke, Bill Bynum and Jonathan Miller. In the mid-1980s he was a founding member of what is now the British Society for the History of Radiology. In 1995 he organised the radiology history exhibition for the Röntgen Centenary Congress and edited his first book on radiology history.

He has published extensively on radiology history and has actively promoted radiology history throughout his career. He is currently the Chairman of the International Society for the History of Radiology.

Dr Thomas believes it is important that radiology is represented in the wider medical history community and to that end lectures on radiology history in the Diploma of the History of Medicine of the Society Apothecaries (DHMSA). He is the immediate past-president of the British Society for the History of Medicine, and the UK national representative to the International Society for the History of Medicine.

See more on the history of radiology at http://www.bshr.org.uk



Top tips for honest science messages in the media

13-kate-elliottScience is often misrepresented in the media. The BIR supports the charity Sense about Science in their call for all research to be openly and honestly reported. This year we supported one of their Voice of Young Science workshops called “Standing up for Science” held on 16 September 2016 in London.

Here, Kate Elliott, Medical Physicist at  Mount Vernon Cancer Centre was one of three lucky BIR members to attend the workshop which gave young researchers top tips and advice on how to get their scientific messages across as clearly and accurately as possible.


I hate speaking in public and even the thought of writing this article terrified me. Why then, you might ask, did I apply to go on the Standing up for Science media workshop?

I often get annoyed at the coverage of science in the media and the misuse of statistics and results. Recently, the Brexit “debate” has left me ranting at friends, and I often find myself defending junior doctors on social media. When I received the email from BIR advertising the media workshop, it struck me as an opportunity to learn what I could do to positively influence the public perception of science, and to hear first-hand from journalists about their involvement.

The first session consisted of a panel of three scientists who told us of personal experiences with the press and offered advice based on this. An example which stood out to me as a healthcare scientist was Professor Stephen Keevil’s use of the media to highlight a problem with a new EU directive on physical agents[1], which could  have caused problems for MRI. Politicians took heed of his criticism, and effected a change to the directive in Brussels. This was a great example of how the media can be used effectively to influence policy – something that is likely to become increasingly important in the next few years.

The second session was a panel of three journalists, who explained their daily process for13-standing-up-for-science-workshop-sept-2016selecting and pitching stories. Science stories are selected based on interest, accessibility, and importance. These are pitched to the editors, who decide which ones to take further. The journalists pointed out that their duty is to their audience, not to science. Unfortunately, science has to compete with news on David Beckham’s haircut. Time constraints are also a problem. They write multiple articles a day (I’m three weeks and counting on this one…), so it’s important for scientists to be available to discuss their research on the day it’s published.

The third panel was about the nuts and bolts of how to interact with the media, and recommended campaigns such as Sense about Science’s “Ask for Evidence” campaign.

I left the event with the following advice to keep in mind:

  • If you disagree with something: speak out. If the public only hears one side of the story, that’s the side they’ll believe.
  • Stick to a few key points. Get those across, even if it means having to ignore questions or turn them around in an infuriatingly politician-like way!
  • Be available. If you’ve put out a press release, you need to be able to respond quickly. Journalists work to very stringent time scales, so being available in a week’s time is going to be too late.
  • Talk to the public. Attend events such as Pint of Science, or become a STEM ambassador, because that will really help you learn to speak in layman’s terms and get you used to answering obscure questions.
  • Get training. If not full media training, a workshop like this is a really good way to be slightly more prepared – and you get to hear about all the interesting science other people are involved in!

Image: BIR members  Jim Zhong, Kate Elliott and Maureen Obioha Agwanihu who attended the workshop

[1] https://www.myesr.org/html/img/pool/MRI-Report-Stephen-Keevil.pdf