I would like to add a historical footnote to the excellent article by John Boone and Cynthia McCollough in the September 2021 issue of Physics Today (page 34). The origins of computed tomography (CT) can be traced to William Oldendorf’s pioneering work in the late 1950s and 1960s. Oldendorf was a professor of neurology at the UCLA School of Medicine when he developed a prototype of an automated tomographic device in which he used his son’s electric train set, a phonograph turntable, an alarm clock motor, and other household items. It was the first demonstration of “a radiographic method of producing cross-sectional images of soft tissue by back-projection and reconstruction.”1 

In his 1961 breakthrough paper, Oldendorf laid out CT’s basic concept,2 which Allan Cormack later used to develop its underlying mathematics. In October 1963 Oldendorf received a US patent for a “radiant energy apparatus for investigating selected areas of the interior of objects obscured by dense material.”3 

The 1975 Albert Lasker Clinical Medical Research Award recognized the importance of Oldendorf’s contributions to discoveries that enabled CT. He shared the prize with Godfrey Hounsfield, who with Cormack would receive the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine four years later for “the development of computer assisted tomography.”

Some have speculated that Oldendorf was on the original Nobel announcement but was removed at the last minute at the behest of certain members of the Nobel Assembly at the Karolinska Institute, which votes on the nominating committee’s recommendations. It is possible some assembly members felt that the inclusion of a clinician would cheapen the award, making it appear overly pragmatic and thereby reducing its prestige.4 

Oldendorf gave a lecture at UCLA shortly after the Nobel announcement was made. In it, he reviewed the work that earned him a Lasker and should have made him a Nobel laureate. Everyone who heard Oldendorf’s presentation that day (myself included) came away convinced he was unjustly deprived of the pinnacle of scientific recognition. Readers wanting to learn more about Oldendorf’s contributions to tomography and their historical context should consult his book on the topic.5 

1.
L. J.
West
,
J. C.
Mazziotta
,
A.
Yuwiler
, in
University of California: In Memoriam, 1993
,
University of California Academic Senate
(
1993
), p.
133
.
2.
W. H.
Oldendorf
,
IRE Trans. Biomed. Electron.
8
,
68
(
1961
).
3.
W. H.
Oldendorf
, “
Radiant energy apparatus for investigating selected areas of the interior of objects obscured by dense material
,” US Patent 3,106,640 (
8
October
1963
).
5.
W. H.
Oldendorf
,
The Quest for an Image of Brain: Computerized Tomography in the Perspective of Past and Future Imaging Methods
,
Raven Press
(
1980
).
6.
J. M.
Boone
,
C. H.
McCollough
,
Physics Today
74
(
9
),
34
(
2021
).