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Prize Fight

Raymond Damadian refuses to take his failure to win a Nobel Prize, for a prototype MRI machine, lying down

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Raymond Damadian says he’ll never forget that day in June 1970 when he drove from his New York laboratory—his car trunk jammed with cages of cancerous rats—to a little town near Pittsburgh. He was heading for an obscure company, NMR Specialties, to test an idea: that a nascent technology involving intense magnetic fields and radio waves could be used to differentiate between rodents with cancer and those without.

The experiment worked. And Damadian, a physician-scientist then at Brooklyn’s DownstateMedicalCenter, went on to build the first magnetic resonance imaging machine, an MRI scanner he nicknamed Indomitable. The machine, which would become a milestone artifact of medical history, was acquired by the Smithsonian National Museum of American History in 1986. Millions of patients would go on to benefit from this new technology’s capacity to create astonishingly sharp images of the body’s soft tissues. And Damadian appeared embarked on what many perceived to be an inevitable progression toward the famed concert hall in Stockholm where he would someday be awarded a Nobel Prize.

This year, it seemed, his time had come. Rumors began to circulate that he—along with two other central figures in MRI development, Paul C. Lauterbur of the University of Illinois and Sir Peter Mansfield of Britain’s University of Nottingham—had been nominated for the coveted Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine. Knowing that the winners would be announced on the Web in the predawn hours of October 6, Damadian rose early and logged on. The Nobel Web site flashed blue and gold on his monitor, but Damadian saw only red. Lauterbur and Mansfield were to share the award and its $1.3 million. Damadian’s name was nowhere to be found.

Thus erupted the most recent, and quite possibly the most high-profile, disagreement in a long series of spats that have periodically attended the Nobel since the first of the prizes was awarded in 1901. In the past, many scientists have quietly grumbled that they were inexcusably overlooked by the Nobel committee. Damadian, however, upped the ante considerably, buying full-page advertisements in the Washington Post, the New York Times and the Los Angeles Times to protest the decision. He also mounted a letter-writing campaign directed at Stockholm and aimed at correcting what he called "this shameful wrong."

No one denies that Damadian conducted pioneering work in the field of MRI. He was the first, in 1977, to use the technology to visualize the organs of a live human subject—after practicing on rat livers and a kosher turkey. (The human volunteer was Damadian’s colleague, Larry Minkoff; Damadian himself had a bit more body fat than little Indomitable could penetrate.) Furthermore, Damadian’s central patent on the technology, awarded in 1974, was affirmed by the Supreme Court in 1997. In that dispute, Damadian and the company he founded, Melville, New York-based FONAR Corporation, won more than $128 million in patent infringement penalties from MRI goliath General Electric.

What is also clear, however, is that it was Lauterbur and Mansfield who made the system medically practicable. With the two recipients remaining silent on the matter, and the Nobel Assembly bound by its rules to keep details of deliberations secret for 50 years, it is difficult to know how to weigh the relative significance of Damadian’s claims. One thing is certain: in the past, the Nobel committee has proved itself something less than infallible.

In some cases, disputes developed only decades after the award was made—and only with the unfair advantage of hindsight. Many Nobel watchers, for example, today cringe at the decision, made in 1949, to award the prize to Portuguese neurologist Egas Moniz, who pioneered the "prefrontal leukotomy"—later called a lobotomy. The procedure was used—and in retrospect greatly overused—as a treatment for a wide range of psychiatric disorders. The previous year, a Nobel had gone to Paul Hermann Müller for his discovery of dichlorodiphenyltrichloroethane, or DDT. The pesticide, which killed insects that spread typhus and malaria, was almost certainly instrumental in saving millions of lives. But today, rightly or wrongly, it is remembered primarily for the terrible toll its use has taken on birds, fish and other wildlife.

In at least one case, the prize given for science was just plain wrong. In 1926, Danish biologist Johannes A.G. Fibiger was awarded a Nobel for his discovery that a tiny round parasite, Spiroptera neoplastica, was the cause of stomach cancer in rats. Scientists later concluded that most of Fibiger’s laboratory rats died of tumors caused by a vitamin deficiency; it was 40 years before a chagrined Nobel Assembly dared again to award the prize for cancer research.

In other instances, complaints that the Nobel Assembly had made a mistake reflect the public’s unfamiliarity with the foundation’s rules. One common misperception, for example, holds that the prize awarded to James Watson, Francis Crick and Maurice Wilkins in 1962 should have gone also to Rosalind Franklin, the colleague who succeeded in making a crucial X-ray image of crystallized DNA. That photograph allowed Watson and Crick to deduce the structure of the double helix. But Franklin had been dead for four years by the time that prize was bestowed; Nobels cannot be awarded posthumously.

Other candidates, however, have been passed over inexplicably and almost certainly unfairly. Many scientists believe that the most egregious omission occurred in the 1940s, when the assembly overlooked Oswald T. Avery, who discovered that DNA is the chemical responsible for the transmission of inherited traits. No one disputes that it was Avery whose experiments with bacteria, published in 1944, proved this crucial truth. He was repeatedly nominated for the prize—every year from 1945 until his death ten years later. But a number of scientists at the time resisted the notion of DNA’s centrality, and he never won.

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