Skip to main content

1979: Allan MacLeod Cormack (1924-1998)

Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine 1979 (jointly with Godfrey N Hounsfield)

"for the development of computer assisted tomography"

Born and raised in South Africa, Allan Cormack came to St John’s in 1947 to read for a PhD after obtaining his BSc and MSc degrees from the University of Cape Town (1944 & 1945 respectively). He did not complete his doctoral studies however, and left Cambridge in 1950 to take up a Lectureship at his alma mater, Cape Town.

After six years at Cape Town and a year as a Research Fellow at Harvard (1956-57) he joined Tufts University in Massachusetts, where he would remain for the rest of his career: Assistant Professor 1957-60; Associate Professor 1960-64; Professor of Physics 1964-80; University Professor 1980-94, finally culminating in an Emeritus Professorship, from 1994.

Primarily a nuclear physicist, his side interest in Tomography led to him developing the theoretical mathematics of CT scanning (also known as a CAT scan). Two papers published in the Journal of Applied Physics in 1963 and 1964 garnered little attention, and it wasn’t until Godfrey Hounsfield and his colleagues at the EMI Central Research Laboratories in London built and tested the first CT scanner in 1971, that his calculations were fully applied. The CT scan takes a series of x-rays from different angles, which are then digitally compiled into a 3D image, proving invaluable in medical diagnostics – the first clinical use being a brain scan of a patient with a suspected brain tumour.

Cormack was posthumously awarded South Africa’s Order of Mapungubwe (Gold) in 2002, its inaugural year, for his outstanding scientific achievements and co-inventing the CAT scan.