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Allan M. Cormack

Allan M. CormackAKA Allan MacLeod Cormack

Born: 23-Feb-1924
Birthplace: Johannesburg, South Africa
Died: 7-May-1998
Location of death: Winchester, MA
Cause of death: Cancer - unspecified
Remains: Cremated

Gender: Male
Race or Ethnicity: White
Sexual orientation: Straight
Occupation: Physicist, Mathematician

Nationality: United States
Executive summary: Computerized axial tomography (CAT scans)

Physicist and mathematician Allan M. Cormack laid the foundation for computerized axial tomography, now commonly called CAT scans or CT scans. Cormack's idea was that x-rays of the brain or body could be taken from numerous different angles, taking into account the differing results when x-raying soft tissues or thicker, more dense tissue, and programming a computer to assemble these images into three-dimensional representations. His work on the topic was conducted in his spare time, while his paid hours were spent researching particle physics. Even after he wrote two articles on his theory, published in the Journal of Applied Physics, there was little scientific or medical interest in his work until Godfrey N. Hounsfield, a British engineer working independently, constructed the first functional CAT scanner in 1972. Cormack and Hounsfield were jointly awarded the Nobel Prize for Medicine or Physiology in 1979. They had never worked together, and first met at their Nobel ceremony in Stockholm.

Cormack's Nobel honor was considered somewhat controversial at the time -- he was not well-known in scientific circles, had never won any of the lesser awards that usually precede Nobel acknowledgement, and neither he nor Hounsfield had earned a doctorate in any field. In brief remarks at their Nobel banquet, Cormack noted, "It is not much of an exaggeration to say that what Hounsfield and I know about medicine and physiology could be written on a small prescription form." As CAT scans have become more common, of course, the technology has proven to be the most important development in radiography since the 1895 discovery of the x ray by Wilhelm Conrad Röntgen, allowing earlier and more accurate diagnoses and pinpoint detection of tumors.

Father: George Cormack (civil service engineer, d. 1936)
Mother: Amelia MacLeod Cormack
Wife: Barbara Jeanne Seavey Cormack (m. 6-Jan-1950)
Daughter: Margaret Cormack
Daughter: Jean Cormack
Son: Robert Cormack

    High School: Rondebosch Boys High School, Cape Town, South Africa (1940)
    University: BS Physics, University of Cape Town (1944)
    University: MS Crystallography, University of Cape Town (1945)
    Scholar: Physics, Cambridge University (1947-50)
    Teacher: Physics, University of Cape Town (1950-56)
    Scholar: Physics, Harvard University (1955-56)
    Teacher: Physics, Tufts University (1956-64)
    Professor: Physics, Tufts University (1964-98)

    Nobel Prize for Medicine 1979 (with Godfrey N. Hounsfield)
    National Medal of Science 1990
    Naturalized US Citizen 1966
    American Academy of Arts and Sciences
    American Physical Society
    National Academy of Sciences
    Scottish Ancestry


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