Sir Peter Mansfield

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Honorary Doctorate of Sciences


Nobel Laureate Professor Sir Peter Mansfield is an inventor who has changed the lives of millions, a scientist who has created revolutionary new pathways for physics, and a role model for people everywhere who want to achieve success from the most humble backgrounds.

Sir Peter's own background did not exactly prepare him for a distinguished scientific career, let alone winning the Nobel Prize, the highest accolade possible. He grew up in Lambeth and his father was a gas fitter, one of nine children. After the war broke out in 1939 when he was just six, he was evacuated twice and he spent some of his childhood in Torquay. When he returned to London, he did not succeed in getting into the local grammar school and was educated instead at a Central School in Peckham, which was later to become William Penn School. However, he left this school at 15 and started work as a printer's assistant. At this point in his life he was judged an academic failure and in particular was told by one of his teachers that science wasn't for him – an all too familiar story and in this case, spectacularly misjudged.

Even before this, as a young boy this fascination with science was sparked by his experiences when the V1 flying bombs and V2 rockets were falling on London – hence Lord Sainsbury's comment on the inspiration of bomb shrapnel of which the 11 year old Peter Mansfield amassed a considerable collection. This fascination became deep rooted and by the age of 19, he had taught himself enough about weapons and explosives to get a job as a scientific assistant in the Rocket Propulsion department, part of the Ministry of Supply, near Aylesbury. After National Service, he took up academic study again and did evening classes to get some A levels at what was then Borough Polytechnic and what is now today, of course, London South Bank University. Peter then won a bursary to study Physics at Queen Mary University as a mature student, a late career trajectory with which so many of our own students recognise. The mature student blossomed and Peter Mansfield graduated in 1959 with a 1st class Honours in Physics, which was followed by a PhD in 1962 under the supervision of Dr Jack Powles.

With his wife Jean, he spent two years as a Research Associate at the University of Illinois, before returning to the UK and a lectureship in Physics at the University of Nottingham, where he was appointed Professor in 1983 and has remained ever since albeit after formal retirement.

Peter Mansfield's work focused on the utilisation of gradients in the magnetic field. He showed how the signals could be mathematically analysed, which made it possible to develop a useful imaging technique. This was a major breakthrough not least because of the speed of the imaging. Within a decade of his developing his theory, the first medical applications were being developed. The commercial development of magnetic resonance imaging in the 1980s provided a breakthrough in medical diagnostics and research from which millions of patients around the world have benefited. There are now more than 22,000 MRI scanners in use worldwide, carrying out over 60 million examinations a year.

The use of MRI of course is expanding exponentially in line with health capacity demands and the increasing use of technology and even in this country, it is estimated that its use will increase by 60% over the next two years.

We, at London South Bank University, have a particular interest in these applications, since we hold a major contract to train diagnostic radiographers in the NHS while our researchers in Electrical Engineering are working with Peter Mansfield's colleagues at Nottingham in using superconductors.

Sir Peter Mansfield's career has been illuminated with honours and distinctions of the highest kind, including the Gold medal of the Royal Society, the Duddell Prize of the Institute of Physics, the Silvanus Thompson Medal by the British Institute of Radiology, the Antoine Beclere medal of the International Radiological Society, The Gold Medal of the European Congress of Radiology, and honorary degrees from universities including Strasbourg, Krakow, Kent and Nottingham. He was also knighted in 1993.

But his highest accolade came in 2003 when he shared the Nobel Prize for Physics with Professor Paul Lauterbur of the University of Illinois.

Accepting his award at the Nobelfest, Sir Peter expressed the feelings of many patients after their diagnosis, "What comes through to me is the strong sense of relief at knowing the details of their illness and the hope inspired by the vigorous evaluation of their problems using MRI."

For all his services to science and to medicine, for the transformation of the health of so many people, and for providing such a powerful role model for so many, Professor Sir Peter Mansfield was named as Doctor of Science honoris causa from London South Bank University.

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