Mon, Dec 08, 2003 - Page 6 News List

Scientists heap scorn on `sour grapes' Nobel loser

THE OBSERVER , London

Scientists launched a scathing attack Saturday on a leading US academic for spending thousands of dollars on newspaper advertisements to denounce the Nobel Prize committee for ignoring his work.

In one of the most vitriolic acts of academic indignation on record, Raymond Damadian -- a pioneer of magnetic resonance imaging -- last week bitterly criticized the committee for giving the prize for medicine to Britain's Peter Mansfield and America's Paul Lauterbur, to be presented in Stockholm on Wednesday.

But the suggestion that the Nobel committee had behaved improperly has infuriated the scientific community. Far from being a maverick genius who created brain and body scanners years ahead of anyone else, Damadian played only a peripheral role in developing magnetic resonance imagers, they argue.

"Damadian's claims have tarnished Peter Mansfield's superb achievements for Britain," said Peter Morris, professor of physics at Nottingham University. "Yes, Damadian did some good work, but he is claiming ownership of the whole field. In fact, it was Mansfield and Lauterbur who did the crucial research."

This view was shared by Mick Brammer, professor of neuro-imaging at King's College, London.

"This is just a very expensive way of expressing sour grapes. He may have done good work, but he didn't develop MRI in the way Mansfield did. Thanks to Mansfield, we can see people's brain centers switch on as they carry out different mental tasks."

Equally dismissive was Colin Blakemore, head of Britain's Medical Research Council.

"Frankly, it is quite extraordinary to petition for a Nobel Prize on your own behalf. The development of these scanners involved input from thousands of scientists. The committee has looked at those and concluded that Mansfield and Lauterbur stand out, and I trust their decision and expertise."

As another MRI expert put it: "This is simply an attempt to buy a Nobel Prize. You can't do that."

No one doubts the importance of Damadian's work. In 1970, he discovered that differences between cancerous and normal tissue could be identified using nuclear magnetic resonance. But it was the work of Lauterbur and Mansfield which allowed the development of machines that used radio waves to "tune" hydrogen atoms in different parts of the body and detect the resulting emissions in scanners, thus allowing doctors to monitor mental and bodily functions in living patients.

The first MRI scanners were made in the 1980s. Last year, 22,000 were used to perform 60 million operations.

Damadian owns several patents for scanners, which have made him a rich man. His company, Fonar Corporation, has paid an estimated ?290,000 (US$502,000) for his adverts, in which he claimed the omission was "a flagrant violation" of the principles of the Nobel award. "Had I never been born, there would be no MRI today," he said.

However, his prospects of changing the committee's minds are remote. Despite a history of furious condemnations of awards, it has never rescinded a decision. The row adds a chapter to the already bulging book of controversies that have dogged the Nobel Prize.

British cosmologist Fred Hoyle played a key role in explaining how elements formed in the early universe. He was excluded from a Nobel Prize, even though his co-workers, who played less pivotal roles, were honored.

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