Remembering Sir Godfrey Hounsfield (1919 – 2004)
Today, the 24th April, marks the fortieth anniversary of the publication of a scientific paper by Godfrey Hounsfield (knighted in 1981), which described his new invention – the C.T. scanner. C.T. scanners (computerised tomography), are used throughout the world and images and data they provide has revolutionised the diagnosis of internal health problems as well as finding applications in all sorts of other fields including palaeontology.
Sir Godfrey, an electrical engineer and scientist, was not regarded as a particularly intelligent or gifted pupil when he was at school, indeed, he was held back a year to enable him to progress with his studies. However, with the outbreak of the second World War, he joined the RAF and soon his interest in electronics and mathematics was noticed. He was assigned to work on RADAR projects and after the war he was recommended to pursue his education by attending a prestigious electrical engineering establishment based in London. He joined EMI and worked on a number of projects, eventually becoming a senior researcher to the company.
In the early 1970s he combined a fascination with computers and X-rays to devise a method of being able to identify the what was inside boxes by focusing X-rays on the object from multiple angles and using a computer to generate an image from the data recording the level and degree of X-ray penetration.
The multi-layered use of X-ray imagery and the analysis of absorption values using a computer has changed the way that many medical conditions are diagnosed. Godfrey was awarded the Nobel Prize (in conjunction with Allan MacLeod Cormack) for his work on the development of computer X-ray tomography.
It is not just human beings that can be scanned, all sorts of objects can now be examined in a non-destructive manner to see what lies inside. In palaeontology, whole body scanners can provide an in-depth picture of what exactly lies inside a block of stone (matrix). This technique can also be used to analyse internal structures of fossils to provide palaeontologists with new insights into the anatomy and physiology of prehistoric animals.
To read about the application of C.T. scans in palaeontology: Birth of a Dynasty – Earliest Ancestor of T. rex Described.
Thanks to Sir Godfrey, palaeontology as well as a number of other scientific fields have an important tool to help further our knowledge.