Spurred by his grandmother’s painful death from cancer, physician Raymond Damadian revolutionized medicine by inventing the first MRI machine. But the Nobel Prize in the field in 2003 went to two rivals, igniting a controversy and an advertising campaign to reverse the decision.
“I’m focused on not being written out of history,” the Woodbury man told Newsday that year, saying he was “profoundly depressed” shortly after the Nobel committee credited two researchers with improving upon his magnetic resonance imaging idea for practical use.
But Damadian was like the name of the first scanner he built in 1977, “Indomitable,” continuing to use MRI to study disease before dying of a heart attack Aug. 3 at age 86. He was the board chairman of Melville-based Fonar, the MRI scanner manufacturer and research company he founded in 1978. He was awarded the National Medal of Technology by President Ronald Reagan in 1988 and inducted into the National Inventors Hall of Fame in 1989.
“His persistence in the face of great adversity, especially among the scientific community, and his intense passion for trying to cure cancer led to the invention of a machine that has undoubtedly impacted and saved millions of lives,” said son Timothy Damadian of Syosset, Fonar’s CEO.
Damadian was viewed as a pioneering maverick and researcher, not just into cancer but in deciphering problems with kidney function, stomach pain and damage to the delicate juncture of brain and spine.
He was opinionated, disagreeably so in the eyes of some in science circles. A firm believer of creationism, he allowed daily 9 a.m. prayer services at work for employees and executives. He filed the first MRI patent in 1971, and unafraid of accusing companies of stealing his ideas, he won a $129 million judgment in 1997 against General Electric for patent infringement.
When the Nobel committee snubbed him, Damadian spent hundreds of thousands of his own dollars to buy full page ads in The New York Times and other papers to depict an upside down Nobel medal.
Before such scanners, the medical community had only X-rays, which often did not reveal the condition of soft tissue and organs, so doctors frequently performed exploratory surgery to find out what was wrong.
Damadian noticed a tool used by chemists and turned it into one for doctors and cancer research.
“Creativity is taking unrelated facts and putting them together in a new form and that’s what Damadian was good at,” said Fonar vice president and biophysicist Lawrence Minkoff, one of the two graduate students who helped the inventor make the first MRI machine. “His life’s work was the MRI; his dream was to cure cancer.”
Chemists had used nuclear magnetic resonance, or NMR, for decades to determine the structure or organic compounds, a technique often used to help make a wide range of products, from medicine to paint.
In the late 1960s, Damadian used this technique to study lab rats and cancer, showing the malignant cells behaved differently than normal ones when “excited” by radio waves inside a magnetic field.
In a 1971 article for Science magazine, he laid out his vision of a “harmless” machine that could see internally. Many at the time labeled him a “fraud” and “charlatan."
Damadian spent a year designing and building the first machine with two graduate students at a lab renovated for him at SUNY Downstate Medical Center in Brooklyn, where he was a professor. The first scan was done in July 1977.
When Indomitable was finished, Damadian sat inside for the first scan but nothing happened, Minkoff recalled. The other graduate student, a 300-pounder named Michael Goldsmith, joked, “You’re an oven stuffer. You’re too fat.”
More than a week later, Minkoff sat inside the machine for a second try, copper coils around his chest, and after several hours, Damadian was the “father” of a successful MRI scanner.
“He was walking around smoking my cigar and looking like he had his first baby,” Minkoff said. Still, he said, Damadian was nervous about any harmful effects, keeping Minkoff at his Forest Hills home overnight to monitor him." There were none.
Born in Brooklyn and raised in Forest Hills, Damadian was the son of an Armenian father who starved for years in the Syrian desert after many Armenians were taken there and slaughtered by the Turks during World War I.
His maternal grandmother lived with the family and was diagnosed with breast cancer when Raymond was 10. Her screams of pain in her last months marked the boy forever, his family said.
At age 15, having skipped at least two grades, Damadian was an accomplished violinist studying at Juilliard when the Ford Foundation gave him a scholarship to the University of Wisconsin, where he got a math degree. He obtained his medical degree at the Albert Einstein School of Medicine in the Bronx, then married Donna Terry, whom he met as a tennis instructor one summer in the Hamptons.
Family and friends remember Damadian as a devoted doctor who didn’t just make house calls but slept in their hospital rooms and jumped on a plane to visit when they were sick.
“If anyone in our family or circle of friends were in the hospital, you were getting a visit from Raymond,” said Helen Damadian, Timothy’s wife. “He had a healing heart.”
Besides his son Timothy, Damadian is survived by son Jevan of Delray Beach, Florida, daughter Keira of Trumbull, Connecticut, and sister Claudette of Manhattan.