Nobel prose pageant – Peter Mansfield publishes his autobiography
eter Mansfield was born on 9 October 1933 in London. Seventy years later, on 6 October 2003 he received a telephone call from Stockholm to inform him that he would share the 2003 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine. His recently published autobiography covers these decades: "The long road to Stockholm" . It is an enlarged version of his autobiography for the Nobel Prize presentation , with some personal background added – and an attempt to justify why he deserved the Nobel Prize.
There is something voyeuristic about reading autobiographies and memoirs, in particular if there is a prevailing feeling that the author accomplished something noteworthy. Yet, Mansfield's life resembles that of many people and university researchers who grew up during and after the second World War.
Mansfield describes his prewar and wartime childhood in southern England, his way to printer apprentice, evening-school studies and work in rocket propulsion development, his "salad days" at university, post-doc years at the University of Illinois, his sabbatical at the Max Planck Institute in Heidelberg in the early 1970s, and his career in academic physics at the University of Nottingham – including his famous patent fights and infamous department conflicts.
He cursorily mentions private matters and one follows his social rise – the advance of the son of a laborer and a waitress: late in his life, this son has become Sir Peter, the Nobel Prize winner. Yet, personal details are sparse and human insights and visions missing. His narrowness doesn't enlighten. The book is mostly laborious and anecdote-free, interspersed with leaden scientific details, sometimes going astray into tabloid-like descriptions of fellow scientists.
He puts down or belittles many people – be it friends as the radiologist Brian Worthington or foes as Paul C. Lauterbur:
"One of the crowning moments for Brian was when he was elected Fellow of the Royal Society. I had proposed him ... Brian came to see me after his ceremony at the Royal Society and mentioned that he would very much like to be awarded the Gold Medal of the Royal College of Radiology (RCR). If awarded, this would be the pinnacle of his career in radiology. I said that I would do whatever I could do help him achieve this, especially since he was now a Fellow of the Royal Society. I wrote to the president of the RCR, who suggested that I send him a testimonial and the necessary background information ..."
Only Mansfield knows why he deals with Paul C. Lauterbur in a chapter entitled "Antagonisms to MRI":
"It appears that he [Paul Lauterbur] was working in clandestine manner with an industrial concern at the time in an effort to negate what we had already achieved and covered in patents. But it later transpired that the real reason he visited Nottingham so frequently was a cover for his visits to see Joan Dawson in London. He later divorced his wife to marry Joan. ... I include these details here simply to give an accurate representation of the story of MRI."
"The long road to Stockholm" is not the expected account of the makings of a Nobel laureate.
Mansfield's autobiography suffers from numerous factual errors: inaccurate dates, wrong places, mistaken identities, confabulated stories. It should have been professionally edited, shortened, and the fallacious cover text rewritten. One wonders whether Oxford University Press still employs editors and proofreaders – or if they don't care any more about the contents of the books they publish.
"The long road to Stockholm" is not the expected account of the makings of a Nobel laureate. The editors of a leading British weekly decided not to publish a review of the book. They considered that it was pretty poor work and they couldn't inflict this on their readers.
Peter Mansfield is a theoretician with deep understanding of the physics of NMR and MR imaging; his main research area in the heyday of MRI application development was echo-planar imaging, the fastest known data acquisition technique. However, he never understood the world of what he calls the "medicos" and did not fathom that high image quality and spatial resolution might be more important to reach a diagnosis in clinical research and patient routine than the possibility to create blurry images or movies in less than a second. Today, echo-planar imaging has finally found its place in applications like diffusion and functional imaging.
As for many Europeans in the field, a stay in the United States opened Mansfield's eyes for the American way of science, as it was attainable for scientists until the late 1980s: freer, richer, more open, and less hierarchic than in Europe. His stay at the University of Illinois in Urbana-Champaign in Charles P. Slichter's research group in 1962 and 1963 allowed him to acquire the basics in NMR of solids. This was his first impression, a typical impression of a young European scientist arriving in the USA:
"When I first arrived in the group, I was the only postgraduate person present. Nevertheless I felt greatly inferior, because the range of knowledge that all the graduate students seemed to have of physics, electronics, and various other subjects appeared to me at the time greatly to exceed my own knowledge in these areas, particularly of theoretical physics."
With an interruption in 1972/1973 when he worked at the Max-Planck-Institut für Medizinische Forschung in Heidelberg, Mansfield spent the rest of his career in Nottingham. Raymond Andrew, a great and outstanding British NMR scientist of the time opened the doors for him at this university. He walked in, and after some years the other scientists, Andrew included, walked out. Mansfield records his view:
"The result of these moves created a considerable vacuum at Nottingham, but the important thing from my point of view was that all the infighting and intrigue that had gone on over the last there or four years stopped."
The subtitle of the autobiography "The story of magnetic resonance imaging" and long passages of the text are misleading, wrong, nagging, and arrogant. Sir Peter's life story isn't the story of magnetic resonance imaging. When he heard about Lauterbur's invention of MR imaging, he jumped on the bandwagon – but he tries to convince the reader that imaging was really his idea.
Soon afterwards his acumen in acquiring and enforcing patents in his NMR research fields became profitable. With a lot of emphasis on details Mansfield describes his interaction with the university administration, numerous companies, and politicians all the way up to Gordon Brown, at that time junior minister in the opposition, later Labor Party Prime Minister.
Mansfield received a knighthood in 1992, and finally at the end of the long road, he was chosen to share the Nobel Prize in Medicine or Physiology with Paul C. Lauterbur.
In his typical manner, here too he finds a fly in the ointment: "When we read the detail in the information pack of the Nobel Prize Committee, it became apparent that they would only cover the costs of travel to Sweden for me and my wife. A number of other people were eligible to come but at their own cost. I decided that the sensible thing would be to limit the number of guests to our close family, namely my two daughters, their husbands, and the four children."
Usually, prize recipients take their collaborators with them because research is a team effort; the invitation to join the ceremony is an acknowledgement and reward for their contribution to the common goal.
Although he lived abroad for some time, Mansfield remained closely attached to the English class system. The late Duke of Bedford's oeuvre "The Book of Snobs" makes perfect supplementary reading to this autobiography .
1. Peter Mansfield. The long road to Stockholm. The story of MRI. An autobiography. Oxford: Oxford University Press. 2013. 241 pages.
2. Peter Mansfield. Autobiography. in: Tore Frängsmyr (editor). The Nobel Prizes 2003. Stockholm: Nobel Foundation. 2004.
3. John, Duke of Bedford, in collaboration with George Mikes. The Duke of Bedford's book of snobs. London: Peter Owen. 1965