Alan McLeod Cormack

Names: Cormack, Alan McLeod

Born: February 1924, Johannesburg

Died: 7 May 1998, Massachusetts, USA

In summary: Scientist, invovled in desiging first CAT-Scan machine and recipient of the 1979 Nobel Prize in Pysiology or Medicine

Alan Cormack, the youngest of three children, was born in Johannesburg in February 1924. His father was an engineer with the Post Office and his mother a teacher. His parents moved to South Africa from the north of Scotland shortly before the outbreak of World War One.

The Cormack family moved around the country a fair amount, but in 1936 they settled in Cape Town, where Alan attended Rondebosch Boys High School. He enjoyed playing tennis, taking part in debating and acting. His main interest, however, was astronomy, through which he developed an enthusiasm for physics and mathematics.

He soon realised that he would not be able to make a living from astronomy and decided to study electrical engineering like his father and brother. He completed his Bachelor of Sciences Degree in Physics in 1944 at the University of Cape Town after abandoning his studies in engineering. In 1945 he completed his Master's Degree in Crystallography at the same university.

Cormack left South Africa for England after completing his Master's Degree. He worked as a research Student at St. John's College in Cambridge and met his future wife and American physics student, Barbara Seavey. He returned to South Africa in 1950 to teach in the Physics Department of the University of Cape Town. He studied nuclear physics and in 1956 he developed an interest in what we call computerized axial tomography or CAT-scanning today.

On his first sabbatical he decided to visit his wife's home country and also conducted research on nucleon-nucleon scattering at Harvard. In 1958 Cormack was offered a teaching position at Tufts University in the United States and the couple decided to remain there. The couple did visit South Africa again several times, but made America their home. He eventually became a citizen of the United States in 1966. He was appointed as Chairman of the Physics Department at Tufts in 1968 and remained in this position until 1976.

Cormack focused on particle physics during this time, but had an interest in X-ray technology, which he pursued on a part-time basis. He published some results on the theoretical underpinnings of CAT-scanning in the Journal of Applied Physics in 1963 and 1964. His findings drew very little response until his fellow Nobel Laureate, Godfrey Newbold Hounsfield, and his colleagues built the first CAT-scan machine in 1972. They put Cormack's theory into practical application.

In 1979 Cormack and Housfield were awarded the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine for their independent efforts in this area. Cormack died of cancer in Massachusetts on 7 May 1998. He was 74 years old.

References