Impossible Dreams

Sir Peter Mansfield: Inventor of the MRI Scanner 

There often is a dream born inside of us to become something or do something that appears ridiculous or unachieveable to the world


by Martha Nelson

Teachers and parents easily recognise the difference in children’s personalities from a young age. These personalities often predict the kinds of adults these children will become. But what is it that allows great things to come out of seemingly unimportant men and women? People the world would hardly have noticed.

Early Years in London

Sir Peter Mansfield was born in Lambeth, London in 1933, the son of a gas-fitter. From an early age he was regarded as a rather destructive child, often found with a screwdriver in hand to take things apart to see how they worked. He was 6 when World War II broke out and says, “I do recall very clearly the first time the air raid siren sounded on the day war was declared. I was playing on the street nearby and ran home asking what the strange wailing sound was.”1  He also remembers his father calling him to the window to see one of the first V2 rockets used to bomb London. Throughout the war Peter collected shrapnel and continued to be fascinated with rockets, but the disruption of his schooling due to being evacuated from London three times meant his educational prospects were not bright.

“Back in London after the war I was hurriedly told by my school master that I should take the 11+ examination, something I had never heard of before. There was no preparation because time was too short. I took the exam and failed, but not completely. The mark I received was not quite high enough for me to get into the local Grammar school, but it was sufficient for me to go to a Central School in Peckham.”2 At age 15 the school careers’ officer asked Peter what he’d like to do, and he said he’d like to be a rocket scientist. When the man had finished laughing, he arranged for the boy to become a printer’s assistant, where he worked for three years.

However, the gas fitter’s son was not willing to let go of his dream.  He began studying for his A levels at night school while working at the printers by day. Then he read an article in the newspaper about the Ministry of Supply’s Rocket Propulsion Department in Westcott, Buckinghamshire, and wrote to apply for a position there and was accepted. Because of his determination to become a rocket scientist and having already begun his studies, Peter eventually gained a university degree in physics and the job he had dreamed of. He went on to earn a PhD in 1962.

However, that was only the beginning of a career which would eventually see his invention of the MRI Scanner, knighthood, and receipt of the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine in 2003 at the age of  70.

Magnetic Resonance Imaging

The MRI (Magnetic Resonance Imaging) scanner uses a strong magnetic field to reveal internal organs and other tissues in amazing detail. Mansfield showed how the signals emitted by the body in response to the magnetic field could be mathematically analysed to produce a clear image very quickly. It is harmless and does not use ionizing radiation, in contrast to ordinary X-ray. It works because our bodies are made up of two-thirds water, and MRI is used to examine almost all organs of the body. For example, MRI is especially valuable for detailed imaging of the brain and the spinal cord. Nearly all brain disorders lead to alterations in water content, which are reflected in the MRI picture.  A difference in water content of less than a percent is enough to detect a pathological change.3

MRI examinations are also very important in diagnosis, treatment and follow-up of cancer. The images can exactly reveal the limits of a tumour, which contributes to a more precise surgery and radiation therapy. It can replace previously used invasive examinations and thereby reduce the suffering for many patients. 4

Sir Peter describes the first test of the scanner on a human, for which he volunteered. “I climbed into the machine and signalled to Peter [Morris] and Ian to push the button for a single pulse. There was an audible crack but I felt nothing. I then signalled to start the scan. The magnet was enclosed in aluminium sheeting forming an RF screen. Due to lack of time there was no light inside. I was therefore clamped in the magnet vertically and in pitch darkness for 50 minutes until the procedure was completed. Our wives and fiancées were present ready to haul me out of the magnet in an emergency, but the whole experiment went well and images were recorded.”5

I recently heard an interview with Sir Peter Mansfield on a BBC Radio program called “Desert Island Discs”. What struck me was how humble and “ordinary” and yet extraordinary this man was – and how his dogged determination to do what he felt he should do had resulted in such a wonderful gift to humanity. How did he do that – and still clearly maintain a love for his family and interests in music, languages, flying and travel that to me evidenced a life that was not only focused but also balanced?

The Dream Inside

There seems to be an indomitable spirit inside each of us that allows us to rise above difficult circumstances to become what the world would never have expected. There often is a dream born inside each of us to become something or do something that appears ridiculous or unachievable to the world – but suggests that someone greater inside of us has overcome those outward disadvantages or weaknesses.7  There is a gift inside each of us – but we have a choice about what to do with it. Even for those who have no religious beliefs (and I have no idea what Sir Peter Mansfield’s personal beliefs are) – it does seem a miracle that amazing gifts to humanity come when one person is faithful to who they believe they were created to be.

In the BBC interview, Sir Peter Mansfield said while working on the scanner he wasn’t thinking so much about how it would help people as how to get the thing to work. It is often the many long, tedious hours devoted to such goals that produce a breakthrough. And at age 73 he still goes into the lab at Nottingham University every day because he feels there is yet work he needs to do. He and his associates are trying to make the scanner smaller and quieter.

Of course, most of us will not receive Nobel Prizes or knighthoods. But examples like this are glimpses of God’s tremendous ability to do all things through us – at times even in spite of ourselves. It is an encouragement to listen to that direction inside and to be faithful to it – and never give up. For even if the world never recognises our “achievements” – be they as a parent, teacher, scientist or musician – there is a way for each of us to know the fulfilment of a life well lived.


  1. Autobiography, Sir Peter Mansfield,
  2. Ibid.
  3. The Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine 2003, Press Release, 6 October 2003,
  4. Ibid.
  5. Ibid.
  6. BBC Radio 4, “Desert Island Discs”, 18 June 2006
  7. Autobiography, Sir Peter Mansfield,
  8. The Bible: 2 Corinthians 4:7 “But we have this treasure in earthen vessels, to show that the transcendent power belongs to God and not to us.”

Return to Table of Contents