On a given Sunday morning, in a small Bible Baptist church on Long Island, New York, sitting alongside his wife, you might find a quiet, unpretentious white-haired gentleman who changed the world. Other than by his distinguished appearance, you might not know he warrants a place in our hall of fame, but in fact, millions owe their life and health to him. His name is Dr. Raymond V. Damadian. He invented the MRI scanner.
MRI is a household acronym these days; everybody knows somebody who has had one (if not themselves) when needing to be diagnosed for a serious disease. But in the 1970s, it would have seemed like a device out of Star Trek. To see inside a living body in fine detail, without the harm of X-rays, was a doctor’s impossible dream then; today it is a reality.
Dr. Damadian, biophysicist, took a relatively new discovery of physics called nuclear magnetic resonance (NMR) and applied it to biology. But it was to prove an uphill battle against doubters and patent thieves. The three stages of reaction to a new invention are, (1) It’s impossible, (2) It’s possible but impractical, and (3) It was my idea. Dr. Damadian experienced all three. After years of legal hassles and near loss of his livelihood, he was vindicated, and is rightly honored today as the inventor of the first practical MRI scanner.
His story comes right out of a Hollywood David-and-Goliath script, the lone entrepreneur against the giant corporations, the optimistic man with a vision against the skeptics in the establishment. Physicists had been using NMR, first reported in 1938, to study various materials, but it was Damadian who reasoned that hydrogen (in water) might prove responsive within the cells of living tissue. Moreover, he speculated that cancerous tumors might respond differently than healthy tissue. Working on borrowed time, experimenting on mice, he gained confidence that his hunch was right. He published a seminal paper in 1971 on his preliminary findings, then applied for a patent and attempted to get a research grant to build a prototype of the invention he had in mind, a device that would flood a human torso with high-energy magnetism and then receive radio emissions from the water in the tissues. But his academic colleagues said it couldn’t be done; why, he would have to spin the patient at 10,000 RPM to make it work! The experts laughed his idea to scorn; the National Institutes of Health refused his request for grant funds.
Undaunted, Damadian appealed directly to President Nixon, who in 1971 had just declared war on cancer. The Nixon administration permitted a modest grant, but then Damadian found himself in a race to produce a working scanner when he learned that others, envious of his preliminary successes, were beginning to steal his idea. Scientific American described the contest: “Damadian pushed himself and his students relentlessly and found private backers to keep research going on a shoestring budget.” Finally, in 1977, he was ready to step into his contraption he had named “Indomitable.” It must have looked like a scene out of Frankenstein.
Damadian proved on his own body that the intense magnetic fields produced no harm, but the machine was too small for him. He got a smaller graduate student to play guinea pig and made history by producing the first NMR image of a human torso. The press leaped on this story, gaining him some notoriety, but since the image was imprecise (it showed the heart, lungs and chest, but needed improvement), no venture capital could be found. Convinced of his belief it could detect cancer, he decided to go it alone. With a small group of friends and supporters, he started FONAR Corporation to design and build Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI) scanners. But the Big Boys wanted to play, too, and he was in competition with General Electric, Toshiba, Siemens, and other corporate giants wanting to capitalize on his discovery.
The big competitors nearly robbed him of his invention. He learned first-hand about corporate greed, and had to spend millions defending his patent. In 1982, a jury trial vindicated him against international corporations that were manufacturing scanners overseas, but a judge single-handedly reversed their verdict (any corruption there?). After years of legal wrangling, Fonar Corporation was eventually awarded $100 million in damages, but the really big bucks are still going overseas to those never involved in the invention at all. From his experience, Damadian became an energetic advocate for the lonely inventors competing against corporate giants, lobbying Congress for protection of patents from infringement and warning against the consequences of weakening the patent laws.
His reputation, though, seems secure. In 1988, Damadian was awarded the National Medal of Technology, the nation’s highest award for applied science. The following year he was enrolled in the Inventor’s Hall of Fame in company with Thomas Edison, Samuel F. B. Morse, and the Wright Brothers, among many other famous inventors. Today, his prototype scanner ’Indomitable” resides in the Smithsonian alongside the first electric light bulb and the first airplane.
Needless to say, Magnetic Resonance Imaging has swept the medical world. After years of embellishments and refinements by Damadian and others, thousands of MRI scanners are in daily use around the globe, detecting not only cancer but many other diseases and ailments, better and more safely than X-rays. Fonar Corporation remains the leader in MRI technology. Damadian’s then envisioned an upgrade that would take Star Trek to The Next Generation: a whole Operating Room MRI. With it, the whole surgical team could surround the operating table, visualizing the target tissue while unaffected by the intense magnetic field that is being applied only to the patient. A projected 3-D image would allow the doctors to pinpoint the tumor precisely in real time, giving the surgeons unprecedented accuracy in treating life-threatening conditions. Who knows how many more thousands, if not millions of lives, could be saved by this latest application of Damadian’s vision and genius. His secretary told this author that he feels, however, like he did at the beginning when he could not find backers for his idea. To date, few hospitals have been willing to pay for this invention. We can only hope it will succeed as magnificently as before.
Scientific American described Raymond Damadian as a man of intense convictions and energy:
Twenty years later he seems able to muster the same enormous drive that allowed him to prove NMR scanning of the body would, after all, work. One wonders whether the most indomitable thing to emerge from that dingy laboratory in Brooklyn was a novel machine or Damadian himself.
But you might not know this from watching him in church. With nearly a tear in his eye, he told this author, whose sister (a member of the same church) was dying of cancer in early 2000, that he regretted his new operating room MRI was not ready in time to help. During her illness, and that of her husband who had brain tumors, he donated free MRIs to both of them for which they could not pay. His dear wife Donna Damadian would come and sit with them for hours just to show she cared. They are the most unpretentious and gracious people you could know.
Does creation play a part in Damadian’s philosophy of science? No; it does not play a part, it plays the lead role. Dr. Damadian, a young-earth creationist, is convinced that the Bible is the reason for the advancement of science and the blessings of Western civilization, and that our country is in great peril if we do not return to Biblical principles, including the foundational doctrine of creation. He considers creation a vitally important message for America today. He told Creation magazine in 1994 that acceptance of the unqualified Word of God “has been the foundation for Western civilization since the printing of the Gutenberg Bible in the fifteenth century,” resulting in centuries of blessing. But that blessing is now imperiled by greed for the almighty dollar. “If America is to be rescued, she must be rescued from the pulpit,” he said, adding that any country “runs off its spiritual batteries, not off its bank accounts, and when those batteries are drained, its bank accounts will be empty.”
For himself, Dr. Raymond V. Damadian emphatically affirmed that his greatest single scientific discovery was to find that “the highest purpose a man can find for his life is to serve the Will of God.” And that he did, as a creation scientist, exploring and applying the laws of nature and of nature’s God for the benefit of all mankind. He passed away at age 87 in August 2022.
The interview in the June 1994 Creation Magazine is excellent, and includes color pictures of Dr. Damadian, his scanner, an MRI image, and more.
For a lively account of Damadian’s humble beginnings and harrowing adventures on the way to fame, read this well-written short story from Scientific American, June 1997..
Visit FONAR Corporation and read all about their latest Operating Room MRI, as well as accounts of the company history and achievements.
See Dr. Damadian’s entry in the National Inventor’s Hall of Fame and look at the other famous winners through history.