An ignoble fight? Medical pioneer's anger at award of top prize to Briton

More than a thousand people - commoners, scholars and royalty - sat down last night in the grand surroundings of the City Hall in Stockholm to celebrate this year's winners of the Nobel Prize.

Over a lavish banquet of fine foods, vintage wines, Hennessy Reserve and Swedish Ramlosa mineral water, the guests enjoyed an annual celebration of the best in intellectual achievement and human endeavour in time-honoured fashion.

But few of the diners could have been unaware of an unseemly spat that has marred this year's award ceremony. Full-page advertisements in national newspapers in both Sweden and Britain that morning had lambasted the medicine prize as a shameful attempt to re-write history.

On the table of honour, next to Princess Madeleine of Sweden, sat Professor Sir Peter Mansfield, with Professor Paul Lauterbur four places to his left - the two joint winners of this year's Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine for their work on medical scanners.

A third pioneer of magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) scanning was conspicuously absent. Instead of donning his dinner jacket and Nobel medal, Raymond Damadian had to content himself with reading the long newspaper accounts - paid for by his friends - of why he feels he has been robbed of a place in the history books.

Dr Damadian thinkshe should have shared the Nobel podium with Mansfield and Lauterbur because it was he who first conceived the idea of using MRI in medicine, and it was he who built the first medical scanner. "Had I never been born, there would be no MRI today," Dr Damadian has repeatedly said to anyone who would listen. "I can't escape the fact that I started it all."

It is not unusual for scientists who have missed out on a Nobel honour to feel wounded. What makes this different is the scale of the publicity and the intensity of the language.

Dr Damadian is a rich man. He is president and founder of Fonar, a medical scanner company on Long Island, New York, that employs 500 people and has won a string of patent cases against multinational giants such as Toshiba, Siemens and GE. He also published a scientific paper in 1971 describing how the technology of MRI could be used to distinguish between diseased and healthy tissues - an insight at the heart of a medical diagnosis by scanner.

Academic textbooks on MRI have given Dr Damadian credit for important innovations in a field that has revolutionised the diagnosis and treatment of millions of patients. Last year, doctors carried out more than 60 million MRI scans throughout the world with some 22,000 machines which investigated everything from brain damage to cancer.

The campaign to give Dr Damadian a share of the credit for MRI research has already cost up to £500,000. Full-page newspaper advertisements have appeared over the past month in the Los Angeles Times, The New York Times, The Washington Post, and several European dailies.

In one such advertisement, Eugene Feigelson, dean of the college of medicine at the State University of New York in Brooklyn, explains why the issue will not go away: "We are perplexed, disappointed and angry about the incomprehensible exclusion of [Damadian] from this year's Nobel Prize. MRI's entire development rests on the shoulders of Damadian's discovery."

Although the rules permit the Nobel committee to award the prize to three people, its members evidently chose not to do so in the case of Dr Damadian. The reasons why will remain secret until the committee's deliberations are opened for public scrutiny in 50 years' time.

Some commentators have suggested that it may have been because of Dr Damadian's unscientific view of evolution. He is a fundamentalist Christian and creationist who believes that the Earth is only 6,000 years old - and if there is one thing the Nobel committee hates, it is controversy.

But others believe that it is simply because his initial insights into MRI were no match for the more important discoveries and developments made subsequently by Mansfield and Lauterbur. Some specialists claim that, although Dr Damadian conceived the idea of using MRI to take pictures inside the body, he did not manage to achieve the crucial breakthrough of forming an actual image rather than portraying the "picture" as a set of numbers.

Professor Mansfield, who has spent virtually his entire career at the University of Nottingham, and Professor Lauterbur, working at the University of Illinois, went further by developing ways of improving the quality and usefulness of the imaging process - a vital tool for diagnosis.

To understand their contribution it is necessary to explain what MRI is. The process works by exposing the body to a strong magnetic field while simultaneously allowing radio waves to "excite" atoms which as a result resonate. This enables doctors to see differences in the water content of soft body parts - highlighting the boundaries between tissues and organs.

Professor Lauterbur's initial contribution was to devise a way of altering the gradient of the magnetic field to allow the construction of two-dimensional images of internal structures that cannot be seen with conventional X-rays.

Professor Mansfield refined the concept of magnetic gradients to show that the signals from inside the body could be analysed mathematically to provide even higher-quality pictures almost as soon as they were taken - such "real time" imaging was a remarkable revolution in medicine.

Dr Damadian accepts the contributions of Mansfield and Lauterbur but stands by his contention that they could not have done what they did without his seminal work published in 1971, and subsequently refined over the following decade.

In support of his case, Dr Damadian quotes extensively from a medical physics textbook called MRI from Picture to Proton, which has a short introductory chapter on the history of the technology.

Unfortunately the four co-authors of the book are not as supportive of Dr Damadian's case as his advertisements suggest. None of them were approached by his campaign managers to ask whether they agreed with the view that he was robbed of a place in history, and none were prepared to say whether he does in fact have a legitimate case.

"We don't really have anything to say. It would be wrong to use a textbook on physics as a source of some kind of historical evidence," said Donald McRobbie, an MRI specialist at Imperial College London and one of the authors of the textbook cited by Dr Damadian.

Another of the book's co-authors, Martin Graves of Cambridge University, was a little more forthright: "We certainly do not support him [Damadian] in that way. We certainly haven't signed up to his advertisements."

Rows over priority and jealous outbursts are nothing new in science. Isaac Newton, one of the greatest scientists in history, conducted a ruthless vendetta against his scientific competitors more than 300 years ago.

Neither is it new that the Nobel Prize committee may have got it wrong. Fred Hoyle, Jocelyn Bell and Salvador Moncada are but three names that spring to mind when it comes to missed honours for deserving scientists.

What makes Dr Damadian so different can be explained by one thing. He has the money to inflict his disgruntlement on the rest of the world.

Prize Fights: How Nobel has divided scientists

Despite many nominations Sir Richard Doll was never awarded a Nobel prize for his study in 1956 which established that smoking caused cancer.

Albert Claude, Christian de Duve and George Palade received a 1974 Nobel prize for their study of the structural and functional organisation of the cell. Absent was Keith Porter who was instrumental in the early development of the study.

Jocelyn Bell Burnell, found her Cambridge University supervisor, Anthony Hewish, accepting the1974 Nobel prize for the discovery of pulsars - stars that release radio waves - of paramount importance to astrophysicists. Many believe Bell Burnell should have shared the prize.

Taiwanese researcher, Louise Chow did not share Richard Roberts and Philip Sharp's Nobel prize for gene researchin 1977. Other researchers involved in the project believed that only she could interpret the experiment data.

In 1998 three US pharmocologists were awarded a Nobel prize for their work on nitric oxide causing uproar. Some felt doctors Salvador Moncada and Chandra Mittel were equally deserving.

By Rebecca Kelly