The "Indomitable" MRI

Raymond Damadian's medical imaging machine set off a revolution — but not without controversy

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Approval from the school's Human Experimentation Committee seemed unnecessary. Damadian had volunteered himself as the first guinea pig.

With veiled trepidation, Damadian shimmied into the corsetlike antenna coil and sat down on the movable platform inside his shiny, 1 1/2-ton contraption. Without fanfare, Damadian's assistant powered up Indomitable's systems and subsystems.

Seconds passed. Then minutes. The team couldn't detect any radio signal. A half-hour passed. Still no signal. After hours of tinkering, still nothing. "We were very depressed," Damadian recalls. "We had been telling the whole world that we were going to be able to do this thing and we failed."

Eventually the thought occurred that Damadian might be too corpulent for the feeble coil. Apparently fat insulates the body from more than mere cold weather.

For seven weeks after the test, graduate student Larry Minkoff keenly monitored his boss, watching for any odd behavior or ailment. Detecting none, he offered his own svelter torso to science.

The machine appreciated his lean physique. On July 3, 1977, nearly five hours after the start of this test, Indomitable achieved the first human scan and became the first MRI prototype. The crude image, reconstructed first with colored pencils and then by computer from 106 data points, revealed a two-dimensional view of Minkoff's chest — including his heart and lungs.

Damadian trumpeted Indomitable's success to the media, asserting, perhaps a bit rashly, in a July 20 press release that "a new technique for the nonsurgical detection of cancer anywhere in the human body has now been perfected."

A year later, he founded a company to commercialize the technology. Named for his field focusing approach, the Fonar Corporation marketed its first product in 1980, based on the Indomitable prototype.

Today, Indomitable, minus its electronic subsystems, is prominently displayed at the National Inventors Hall of Fame in Akron, Ohio, on loan from the National Museum of American History. The Hall of Fame inducted Damadian in 1989. A year earlier, Damadian shared the National Medal of Technology with Lauterbur for their independent contributions to MRI technology.

The use of MRI technology, of course, has spread so rapidly that nowadays even dogs and cats benefit from its revealing scans. Improvements to MRI machines have even made it possible to trace thought or perception sequences for brain research.


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