Inventor of first full body MRI machine

Born: September 23, 1940;

Died: September 4, 2018

WORKING at the University of Aberdeen, Dr James Hutchison, who has died of cancer aged 77, co-created the world’s first commercial full-body MRI (magnetic resonance imaging) scanner, an invention that has since saved countless lives around the world. First used at Aberdeen Royal Infirmary in 1980, the scanner, which, unlike an X-ray, poses no threat of radiation, is now one of the most vital pieces of hospital equipment.

Magnetic resonance imaging uses strong magnetic fields and radio waves to produce detailed images of the inside of the body. X-rays had revealed everything about the bones but MRI could reveal everything about the soft wet tissues.

Trained in medical physics and ultimately named Emeritus Professor at Aberdeen, Dr Hutchison, always known as Jim, was as much stunned as delighted on April 28, 1980, when his scanner, which he called the Mark 1, first revealed clear images of the cancerous growths in a terminally-ill man from Fraserburgh. It was too late to save the man’s life but he had known that and volunteered as a “guinea pig” to help save other lives.

Dr Hutchison’s co-creator was the late Dr Bill Edelstein, an American physicist who had moved to Aberdeen after a three-year postdoctoral fellowship at the University of Glasgow. He had fallen in love with both Scotland and a lass from Dumfries. Together the two men invented the “spin-warp” imaging technique now used in all commercial MRI systems. They had been mentored, guided and encouraged by John Mallard, professor of medical physics at Aberdeen, who headed the Aberdeen team. They called it “spin warp” because its proton-spin columns resembled the warp threads of cloth. Aberdeen’s “spin-warp” method was the first to produce a full, clear image of the tissues of the whole human body and became the standard for today’s MRI scanners.

In 2003, Sir Peter Mansfield of the University of Nottingham and the American Paul Lauderbur were awarded the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine for their separate work in MRI from the 1970s which helped the Aberdeen team invent the Mark 1. The award was controversial since many scientists felt another American, Raymond Damadian, deserved to share the prize since his research had also helped lead to the Aberdeen team’s breakthrough.

Both Dr Hutchison and Dr Edelstein remained humble about their role in medical history and went largely unheralded until the MRI scanner became a worldwide phenomenon. The American’s daughter Jean-Hannah Edelstein said she found out about his achievement by chance only a few years before his death in 2014.

James McDonald Strachan Hutchison was born in Alyth, near Blairgowrie in Perthshire, son of an insurance agent. He attended Alyth primary school, where the gift of the Boy’s Book of Electricity sparked an interest in all things electronic. He moved on to Blairgowrie High before studying science and mathematics at St Andrews, culminating in a PhD in the field of electron spin resonance (ESR), from which MRI, or magnetic resonance imaging, was developed

After a postdoctoral spell at Bradford University, he won a post at Aberdeen University in 1967 as a medical physics researcher under Professor Mallard. Also working with the professor was the biologist Margaret “Meg” Foster, who also played a key background role in the MRI research. She and Dr Hutchison married in 1972.

Dr Mallard, intrigued by the possibilities of magnetic resonance for medical innovations, asked Dr Hutchison to look into it. The latter, aged 32, first created a machine with which spatial information could show changes in tissue on small areas. He and Dr Mallard decided to experiment on a mouse. In case it suffered slowly, “we killed it by breaking its neck and the first image showed very clearly, exactly where the neck had been broken,” Professor Mallard told the journal Medical Physics International last year.

“So from then on it became a fight to get this technique from looking at a mouse, to looking at a whole human being … We scanned our first patient in April 1980. It was a man from Fraserburgh who had a very large malignant growth in his liver which was known about, but what they didn’t know was that there was also a secondary deposit in one of his spinal discs. That was picked up on the whole body MRI.”

Until that first proven test, scientists and medical professionals were sceptical of MRI to say the least. “I don’t know why you’re bothering to do this … it’ll never work,” Tom Redpath, a PhD student working with Dr Hutchison recalled scientists saying. “But the whole thing took off like a rocket. We thought Wow! This actually works. It was huge fun …. An energetic and energising place to be," added Dr Redpath, now Emeritus Professor at Aberdeen. "The difference between the Mark I and a modern scanner is a bit like the difference between a World War One fighter aircraft and a modern Typhoon jet fighter," he added.

After retiring to his home in Westhill, outside Aberdeen, Dr Hutchison’s favourite “hobby” was to keep working on other medical physics ideas, mathematical problems or astronomy, as well as continuing to lecture. For a man of his age, he was extremely computer savvy.

After his GP suspected cancer, Dr Hutchison experienced a modern version of his own invention during a scan at Woodend hospital Aberdeen, where the MRI unit is named after him.

Although he himself was stricken by cancer, Jim Hutchison’s MRI scanner must have saved many lives of those whose cancer was detected in time. He is survived by his wife Meg, who spent her career at Aberdeen University and the city’s Royal Infirmary, where her husband’s historic Mark 1 scanner is on public display, its inner workings clearly visible unlike today’s streamlined models. Although formally retired, Meg is now an honorary curatorial assistant for Aberdeen’s University Museums.