What Medicine Owes the Beatles

A factoid I just came across: If not for the Beatles, we wouldn't have CT scans, aka CAT scans, the advanced medical scanning technology that lets your doctor see how badly your bones are broken or whether your aunt really has emphysema.

Here's the story: in the 1960s, a middle-aged engineer named Godfrey Hounsfield was working at Electrical & Musical Instrument Ltd., where he began as a radar researcher in 1951. The company, known as EMI for short, was a typical industrial scientific company at the time, working on military technology and the burgeoning field of electronics. Hounsfield was a skilled but unexceptional scientist, leading a team that built the first all-transistor computer in 1958. Through its work in radar the company began working in broadcasting equipment, which complimented its ownership of several recording studios in London. Specifically, at Abbey Road. In the 50s, the company began releasing LPs, and by the end of that decade, thanks to an acquisition of Capitol Records, the company had become a powerhouse in popular music.

Then, in 1962, on the recommendation of EMI recording engineer George Martin, the company signed the Beatles to a recording contract.

That was the bang - over the next decade (and for years thereafter) the company earned millions of dollars from the fab four. So much money, the company almost didn't know what to do with it.

Meanwhile, Hounsfield's success with computers had earned him good standing in the science side of the company. Flush with money broken out of teenagers' piggy banks worldwide, EMI gave Hounsfield the freedom to pursue independent research. Hounsfield's breakthrough was combining his work with computers together with an interest in X-rays. Invented in 1908 1895, X-rays were still pretty much used to image bodies in two dimensions from a fixed position. Hounsfield's idea was to measure in three dimensions, by scanning an object - most dramatically, a human head - from many directions. The result was a cross-sectional, interior image that he called computed tomography, or CT. As the Nobel Prize committee put it, in giving him the Nobel Prize in medicine in 1979, before the CT scanner, ''ordinary X-ray examinations of the head had shown the skull bones, but the brain had remained a gray, undifferentiated fog. Now, suddenly, the fog had cleared.''

First released as a prototype by EMI in 1971 - the year after the Beatles broke up – CT scanners started to appear at hospitals in the mid 1970s; today there are about 30,000 in use worldwide.

UPDATE: Since this post has generated lots of interest from Beatles fans, I should add some context on EMI's Beatles revenues: in 1963 alone, the company made $2.2 million (about $15 million today) off George Martin's productions, which one assumes was largely due to the Beatles. And that was a relatively quiet year for the group, considering they didn't debut on Ed Sullivan until Feb. 1964. (From the crazy site, Beatlemoney.com

A historical take from somebody who worked with Hounsfield is here.

Hounsfield's Nobel lecture is here.