Computer tomography scan, known as CT or CAT scan, a technology used worldwide to screen for cancer, heart disease, and injuries, amongst other things, was invented by an African.
Allan MacLeod Cormack was born and raised in South Africa. He was white, born of Scottish immigrant parents. He obtained his BSc in physics and MSc in crystallography from the University of Cape Town. He joined St. John's College, University of Cambridge, in 1947 to study for his PhD which he did not complete. He left Cambridge in 1950 to become a lecturer at the University of Cape Town. He later moved to the United States with his American wife where he lived and spent the rest of his career at Tufts University. He was later promoted to the rank of professor.
Cormack work mainly focused on particle physics. However, he developed an interest in X-ray technology upon which CT scan technology is based. He started working on some calculations that led to the development of the CT scan. He started his work at the University of Cape Town and Groote Schuur Hospital in early 1956 and continued briefly in mid-1957. The results of his work were published in two papers in 1963 and 1964 in the Journal of Applied Physics. However, the papers got little attention.
Cormack tested his calculations - which converted numerical data from an artificial skull into images - with a scanner made from Lucite and aluminium. Though the tests were somewhat successful, he needed the help of computer scientists, engineers, other scientists, and advances in these fields to produce a truly practical CAT scan in 1973.
In 1971, an electrical engineer called Godfrey Hounsfield built the first CT scan using Cormack's calculations. It was then that Cormack's work started generating interest. The first clinical use of a CT scan was to scan the brain of a patient with a suspected brain tumour.
In 1979, both Hounsfield and Cormack were jointly awarded the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine for their independent efforts in inventing the CT scan.
Cormack died from cancer in 1998.
He was posthumously awarded South Africa’s Order of Mapungubwe (Gold) in 2002, its inaugural year, for his outstanding scientific achievements and co-inventing the CAT scan.
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