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Sir Peter Mansfield – A Lifetime of Innovation

24 April 2017

Nobel laureate Sir Peter Mansfield, who sadly died earlier this year, was undoubtedly one of the most important figures in medical science. He was a true pioneer who continued to push boundaries throughout his career.
 
As a firm, we were immensely privileged to work with Sir Peter Mansfield in a small way on his vast body of work, advising on his patent portfolio from the mid 1980s. By this time his original patents relating to MRI had been granted, but Sir Peter was constantly looking for ways to drive the technology forward – underlined by the fact that, as a firm, we worked with him on more than 100 patent matters around the world over the following 20 years. For Sir Peter, the job was never complete and he maintained his interest in improving the technology with numerous innovations, even including those making the patient experience more pleasant such as noise suppression.
 
Speaking to a local newspaper in 2014 Sir Peter talked about his school days, which revealed a doggedness that was ingrained in his character from an early age. After failing his 11-plus, he recalled a conversation with a teacher who laughed when he professed an interest in science and was instead encouraged to focus on finding employment. Undeterred, he combined working in the printing industry with spending each evening doing his O Levels at night school.
 
His boyhood dream had been to become a rocket scientist and his determination saw him realise this ambition by embarking on his scientific career at the Ministry of Supply in the Rocket Propulsion Establishment at Westcott in Buckinghamshire. After passing his A Levels, Sir Peter secured a place at Queen Mary College and it was here that his interest - thankfully for medical science - diversified into nuclear magnetic resonance.
 
Sir Peter was a remarkable scientist and I was always struck by how hands-on he was in every aspect of his work when we would meet in his office in the Magnetic Resonance Centre at the University of Nottingham surrounded by copious notes on his current projects, the latest journals and piles of books. He would happily recount the extraordinary lengths to which they had gone to install the latest large piece of experimental kit – even if it meant demolishing walls and building a new vehicle access.

He took a very active interest in the patent portfolio, right from the drafting stages through to attending patent hearings at the European Patent Office in Munich and personally debating points with the patent office examiners – even when he was well into his seventies!  He famously tested the prototype MRI scanner himself, despite a genuine fear that it could pose a risk to his own health. This unwavering commitment and drive is what made him a great innovator.
 
There are very few individuals like Sir Peter, who combine the talent to develop groundbreaking ideas with the necessary pragmatism to turn them into a reality. He dedicated his 40-year career to furthering the potential of MRI technology, which has transformed diagnostic medicine forever and saved countless numbers of lives.  It was always a pleasure to meet his colleagues and students at the University who spoke so highly of him and his work.  
 
He was visionary in his approach, but one well-documented cause of frustration for Sir Peter was a perceived failure of the British government to back the development of MRI scanners in the UK and, consequently, manufacturing firms in the US and Asia stepped in to scoop the wider commercial benefits.
 
Quite rightly, Sir Peter’s achievements have been acknowledged through the highest honours and awards. Today, his first MRI scanner is on display at the Science Museum in London, while his portrait hangs in the National Portrait Gallery. However, the most satisfying legacy for the man himself would be to see an increasingly supportive and encouraging environment in which scientific innovation can thrive.
 
This article first appeared in Intellectual Property Magazine 

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