Sir Peter Mansfield 1933-2017

We heard the sad news today that the inventor of the MRI scanner; Noble Laureate and excellent Beestonian Sir Peter Mansfield died last night.

As a tribute, we are posting up the interview we conducted with him in 2013. Our reporter, Darren Patterson, remembers him as a polite, modest man who loved his town (though not so much the tramworks, which were underway at the time).

Our thanks to Darren for the article, and our condolences to Peter’s family and friends.

Sir Peter Mansfield is not necessarily a name you will be familiar with, you may not have ever heard of him, despite his honoured title, however you will almost certainly be familiar with his work, you see Sir Peter was one of the people responsible for the development of the MRI scanner.

He also happens to live in Beeston Fields. So, when I found out he was to be awarded the Freedom of the City of Nottingham I wasn’t about to pass up the chance to speak to a real Beeston great.

The honour, of course, being bestowed on Sir Peter in respect of his groundbreaking work in the field of magnetic resonance imaging – aka MRI. It was Sir Peter, and his team, who discovered that MRI could be used to produce images of the body – establishing what has become one of the defining parts of modern medicine.

All this he did while working at the University of Nottingham, where he became lecturer in 1964, following two years in the States at the University of Illinois, Sir Peter admits he knew little about Nottingham before moving here.

“I didn’t know Nottingham, I didn’t really know anyone in the department, apart from one person, and that was the head of the department, Prof Raymond Andrew, and he was my external examiner for the PHD.”

Having made the choice to come to Nottingham and work with Professor Andrew, Sir Peter knew he was taking a chance, and one that didn’t always work out.

“I think these things tend to be a bit hit and miss and some people after a year or two move on somewhere else but in my case I was given a lab here in Nottingham and the freedom to set up my own research, which is what I did, and it all took off from there.”

For Sir Peter it certainly worked and he remained at Nottingham University until his retirement in 1994 and it was while there that he carried out the research and discoveries for which he is best known. The development of the MRI scanner. As with any pioneering work he was initially met with scepticism by his peers.

“When you pioneer something you have your detractors immediately and very few people involved really believe what you say. The only way you make progress is by actually showing people, and demonstrating it, and that took maybe two or three years.”

Starting with a standard NMR sized coil of 1 ½ centimeters, Sir Peter’s early work saw him imagining plants and twigs and anything else he could dig up in his garden, however over time he began to increase the size of the coil.

“We did it in stages, we made one you could put a hand or arm in, and we made one big enough to take a live rabbit and then we put a pig in, until in the end I got in the coil andproduced an image of my thorax. It was a slow process, it took about 12 years from the first idea up to it being finally adopted.” 

And so became one of the biggest and most important discoveries in modern medicine, with the MRI scanner still a major tool today, though, as Sir Peter points out it’s primary function has changed over the years. 

“One of the really big effects is in brain scanning, I did a little bit of work on that but that’s moved on leaps and bounds now, it’s the method of studying the brain. My own interest had been more general than that, so I did a bit of brain scanning but was more interested in looking generally at the body, I was looking at cardiac imaging, abdominal imaging and all sorts.”

Since moving to Nottingham, Sir Peter, along with his family have lived in the Beeston area, spending seventeen years living on the Beeston/Chilwell border before moving, eventually, to their current residence of Beeston Fields.

So what is it that Sir Peter likes so much about his hometown, other than it’s obvious proximity to the University?

“When we were younger we would often go over to the ponds and lakes over at Attenborough, which was quite nice and a pleasant stroll. When our children were younger we’d go over to Wollaton Park, which was quite nice, areas right on the doorstep.”

It seems that the area itself may well have been one of the reasons for Sir Peter remaining in Nottingham rather than choosing to take up offers elsewhere.

“We are very fortunate to be living in this area, of course none of it would have been possible without the university, from our point at least, in many ways we are fortunate which is why we stayed here, we could have moved away but we never did.

I’ve got no complaint,s put it that way.”

Well, maybe one…

“This stupid tram, I think we’re presumably about six months into the apparent three years, let’s hope it’s all worthwhile though I can’t think of anyone I have spoken to who wants a tram in Beeston.” (Editor’s note: despite not liking the tram works, he would warm to the eventual tram…and even had one named after him: see pics)

peter-mansfieldpmtram

There are many great individuals and characters living in the great town of Beeston and Sir Peter Mansfield is certainly one of them, he is also, to my knowledge at least, the only person living in Chilwell to have been awarded a Nobel Prize – he was awarded his in 2003 in the fields of physiology or medicine – not bad going for someone who at fifteen was told “science wasn’t for him”. Darren Patterson


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