Dr. Raymond Damadian, a physician and inventor, knew all too well that the human body is composed mostly of water and that hydrogen atoms abundant in H20 might be tremendously useful in a special type of diagnostic imaging device.
Inside each hydrogen atom, Damadian also knew, exists an even tinier particle, the proton, which has magnetic properties making it capable of aligning with an external magnetic field.
What he needed, Damadian, 80, said recently at his Melville office, was a magnetic-based diagnostic device to exploit the properties of hydrogen protons. By 1977, his machine, which he called Indomitable, was ready. It utilized magnetism and radio waves to detect the body’s own subtle signals courtesy of protons that dance in the core of atoms. Yet at the heart of the machine itself lay the “ice” of superconductivity. The electrical current powering Indomitable’s potent magnetism flowed at an unworldly subzero temperature.
Damadian, who is also an accomplished violinist, relied on creativity and scientific talent to bring his dream of a new diagnostic tool to fruition. He designed, self-tested and patented the world’s first magnetic resonance imaging device, an MRI.
While superconductors may still be pie-in-the-sky for theorists seeking room temperature materials to drive smarter computers and produce a new era of levitated trains, the science has been part of MRI technology for more than 40 years. Damadian dropped the temperature driving Indomitable’s magnetic coils more than 200 degrees below zero, Celsius, more than twice as cold as the North Pole of Mars during the Red Planet’s dark and eerie winters.
“When you make a scan, you’re collecting radio signals that are being generated by atoms from the body,” said Damadian, who founded his company, Fonar, in 1978. He began working on the device in 1971.
Before its development, the medical community had only X-ray images, which could not reveal the condition of the body’s soft tissues and organs.
Developing the first machine, Damadian said, was a huge intellectual challenge. He not only was on the cusp of introducing new technology to the health care arena, he and his small team of a half-dozen colleagues had to engineer it first.
As a Harvard-educated mathematician, Damadian knew he had to dig deep to find answers about magnetism, electrical current and superconductivity.
“I knew that if I made the magnet out of simple copper wire I would be limited in the amount of current that I would be able to put through it,” Damadian said, because ordinary “copper has resistance and resists the flow of electricity.”
Damadian turned to the Westinghouse Corp., which produced superconducting coils that could carry a powerful amount of amperage under certain superchilled conditions.
“If it was just an ordinary wire and I tried to put 1,000 amperes of electricity through it, the wire would burn up,” Damadian said.
“That’s where superconductivity comes into play,” he explained, referring to the Westinghouse coils. “There is a special character that makes the wire superconducting. If I took it and connected it to a battery, no electricity would flow. You have to do something special to that wire and the answer was I had to make it super, super cold — I had to get it to 269 degrees [Celsius] below zero.”
He achieved the supercooling through liquid helium.
For all of his creativity, Damadian did not share the 2003 Nobel Prize for the MRI, an honor bestowed, instead, upon two theoreticians, the late Paul Lauterbur and a British scientist. Lauterbur, in the 1970s, was a professor of chemistry at Stony Brook University. The Nobel controversy remains alive today.
Indomitable is housed at the Smithsonian.
CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story misspelled the name of the scientist who received the Nobel Prize.