A Tribute to William H. Oldendorf, MD

"Bill's mind was Einstein's universe, finite, but boundless. Always reaching into spheres you wouldn't imagine." These are the words of L. Jolyon West, MD, Chairman of Psychiatry at UCLA. Bill died from the complications of heart disease on December 14, 1992' The scientific community has been well aware of his prodigious research and fundamental observations in blood-brain barrier mechanisms, cerebral metabolism, and perhaps most importantly, the principles of computed tomography.

I first met Bill in 1959, when I was a resident in internal medicine at the Wadsworth VA-UCLA Medical Center rotating through his neurology service. He was immediately likeable, friendly and extremely amusing. His ability to apply techniques from one field to another was uncanny. The idea that formed the basis for his original work on the CT scan came from an engineer who was working on a project to develop an automated apparatus for rejecting frost- bitten oranges using shadow radiography to reveal dehydrated segments. Projecting from this scan and rejection technique, Bill proposed scanning the head by a transmitted beam of X-rays, thereby being able to reconstruct the radiodensity pattern of a plane through the head.

In 1961, he published a seminal article regarding his experimental model, which was deceptively simple but incorporated the fundamental concepts and hardware implementation that are present in modern computed tomographic scanners. The apparatus was crude and largely constructed from junk box parts, among which was a train flat car and track confiscated from his son's collection. At the cost of $ 1,700, he applied for a patent thinking that this would generate industrial interest in implementing his concept. This patent was awarded in 1963. A letter from one of the world's major X-ray manufacturers ended: "Even if it could be made to work as you suggest, we cannot imagine a significant market for such an expensive apparatus which would do nothing but make a radiographic cross-section of a head!" "Faced with this reaction," Bill said, "I turned my attention to other scientific work and heard nothing further about the concept until 1972."

Although none of us recognized the import of his simple experiment, we were all amazed at the genius that went into its construction. In 1974, he was awarded the first Ziedses des Plantes Medal by the German Society of Neuroradiology and the Medical Physics Society of Wurzburg in recognition of his pioneering study. In 1975, he was awarded the prestigious Albert and Mary Lasker Award "for his original concept of the principles which demonstrated the feasibility of computerized tomographic scanning." Rosalind Yalow, a Nobel laureate in physiology and medicine in 1977, went on to nominate Oldendorf for the prize and was upset that he did not get it. In the journal Science, January 1980, vol207, page 31, William J. Broad wrote a "Riddle of the Nobel Debate." It was felt that politics in Stockholm may have forced a would-be laureate off the CT scanner ticket.

His interest in this field was precipitated by a distaste for the invasive procedures that he did as a clinical neurologist. Like most of us, he found that these traumatic, tedious tests provided only limited and indirect information about the brain and he knew there had to be something better. In 1959, he taught me to do my first carotid angiogram. When bright red blood spurted from the needle after one stick, he said, "You got it, Dad." (He called a lot of people "Dad," no matter what their age was.) When I injected the dye, of course, it turned out to be a vertebral angiogram.

West tells the story of how excited Bill was about a gadget to fix rat brains instantly at death for an accurate picture of brain function just prior to death. He called this an "instant microwave." He was truly the Thomas Edison of neurology, creating new and better gadgets. After he won the lasker Award, I asked Bill if people treated him diferently and he said, "Yes, they call me Bill instead of Bob." Once, prior to giving his well- known lecture on basic MRI, he handed his carousel to the projectionist, who promptly dropped it, mixing all the slides. The projectionist wai horrified, but Bill said, "Oh, just put them in any way, it will be all right." He went on to give one of the best lectures on this subject he had ever given.

Bill authored 250 scientific publications including 3 textbooks. He was on several editorial boards and was a Fellow of the American AcademY of Arts and Sciences and many other organizations. In 1992, he was the first neurologist in the 20th century to be elected to the National Academy of Sciences.

He was the youngest of four children, graduating from high school at age 15. He finished Union College in 3 Years and attended Albany Medical School. While in high school, he developed an interest in telescopes and, according to his sister Dorothy Brown, had one on the sidewalk in front of his house to study the stars. His friend Harry Judge, who attended Union College and Albany Medical School with Bill, said, "Everybody found him warm, friendly, and fun and no one, at first, realized how bright he really was. He was very modest and always laughed at himself and had a gorgeous sense of humor."

In a letter to the editor of this journal in the first issue, Bill was asked, "What will be the next imaging modality after MRI?" His answer was "clairvoyance"' He was the first president of the American Society of Neuroimaging and really was the rock upon which this organization and this journal has developed. He argued, rightfully, to change the name from Society for Computerized Tomography to the American Society of Neuroimaging, knowing that other technologies would be inevitable.

Bill leaves his wife and colleague Stella, three sons, two sisters, and three grandchildren. We all wish them to know that it was a privilege to have known and worked with him. These words reflect only faintly the affection and admiration in which he is held. Jack O. Greenberg, MD

 

Editor's Note
Ours is an era given to oftentimes excessive and inappropriate superlatives. Bill Oldendorf was a genius, for any era. Bereft of words sufficient to mark his passing, let me quote those of William Shakespeare (Julius Caesar; Five: V- Antony on the death of Brutus):

His life was gentle, and the elements
So mix'd in him that Nature might stand up
And say to all the world, "This was a man!"

 

Click here to read this tribute as a scan from the original Journal of Neuroimaging article.

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