World’s first MRI scanner now on display

The world’s first full-body MRI scanner, known as Mark-I, has just gone on display over at the Suttie Arts Space in Aberdeen Royal Infirmary. The Suttie Arts Space is managed and maintained by Grampian Hospitals Art Trust (GHAT). GHAT organised and project managed the scanner’s installation and then created a documentary film which plays alongside the display.

The MRI scanner was developed at the University of Aberdeen through the 1970s by a team of visionary medical physicists led by Professor John Mallard, the historic machine was the culmination of years of pioneering research and produced the first ever clinically useful full-body MRI scan on the 28th of August 1980; the patient was an elderly man from Fraserburgh.

MRI scanning is a technique now taken for granted in medicine and carried out all over the world on many millions of patients every year. Dr Francis Smith, the consultant radiologist who performed the machine’s historic first scan, has described the development of MRI as being “as important to medicine as the discovery of x-rays was in 1895.”

Now part of the University Museums’ collection, Mark-I has spent several years deconstructed and in storage and has been rebuilt by Eddie Stevenson, the same specialist technician who originally put it together in the 1970s. Since those days Aberdeen has continued to play an important part in the development of full-body scanning techniques. In recent years, cutting edge research into an advanced version of MRI known as Fast Field Cycling MRI has been led by researchers at the University of Aberdeen and has attracted multi-million pound grants to aid its development. Aberdeen was also the first place in Scotland to have PET imaging, used to diagnose cancer patients, and in January last year the scanning centre at Aberdeen Royal Infirmary, itself named after the University’s MRI-pioneering team leader John Mallard, unveiled a brand new £2 million Positive Electron Tomography Scanner, the most advanced of its kind in the whole country.

Mallard’s team went on to develop a second MRI scanner, Mark-II. Three of these were built, one of which was in use for a decade at St. Bartholemew’s Hospital in London and is now on display in the Science Museum; another, deployed in Edinburgh, ended up in the Edinburgh’s National Museum of Scotland. Now everyone has the rare opportunity to see the daddy of them all, the Mark-I, very close to the site of its initial construction and use, so if you’re at the University’s Foresterhill campus be sure to pop in to the hospital and have a look at this important piece of medical history.

The story of the machine’s development is a fascinating tale. You can read an interesting interview with John Mallard that was donated to the University’s Special Collections Centre here and a journal article he wrote about the scanner here. Recollections of the project from key developer William A. Edelstein are available here. You can also view several photographs of the scanner’s development process on the website of another of the original team members, long-time University of Aberdeen lecturer Professor J. M. S. Hutchison.

Medical Library Team

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Medical Library, University of Aberdeen

The team in the Medical Library at the University of Aberdeen in Scotland

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