Back to Stories

The Beatles and radiotherapy?

Historical Figures

How would you feel if someone told you The Beatles were fathers of radiotherapy? Its not as far fetched as you may think.

Marco Carlone / Jan. 22, 2023, 4:06 a.m.

The record label EMI had a medical division, EMI Medical, that produced the world first CT scanner in 1971. Briefly, the company also sold linear accelerators.

Godfrey Hounsfield, a father of the CT and co-Nobel Prize winner in 1979, did his pioneering CT work while employed by EMI, the same EMI that produced John, Paul, George and Ringo. The Electrical and Musical Industries (EMI) was formed in 1931 as a result of a merger between The Gramophone Company and the Columbia Graphophone Company. The businesses had significant recording business and had signed many artists to contracts, including the great tenor, Enrico Caruso.
The company also had significant non-music businesses, including television, where it made television cameras that were used by the BBC, Radar systems that went into the RAF planes fighting in WWII, computers, and more famously, CT-scanners developed by Godfrey Hounsfield. Hounsfield was an engineer who worked at EMI starting in 1949 and was heavily involved in its computer business, helping to create an all-transistor computer, the EMIDEC 1100 in 1958. By 1967, EMI let Hounsfield pursue medical imaging. Drawing on his background in radar, Hounsfield independently devised a method for creating tomographic images of three dimensional objects, although the idea was being pursued by others as well. With some assistance from the British Department of Health and Social Security, Hounsfield and EMI developed the world’s first commercially available CT Scanner. The EMI Mark 1 scanner produced the first CT scan in October 1971, which could create an image in about 10 minutes.
However, the medical imaging business proved to be quite challenging for EMI. The initial Mark 1 scanner could only make images of the head with a coarse 80x80 image size. By 1976, there were 17 companies offering CT scanners, and by 1978, images the CT scanner technology had improved to 512x512 image size created in less than a minute. By the end of the 1970, medical heavyweight companies GE, Picker, Varian and Siemens had entered the CT business, creating a very competitive landscape. EMI was not able to be competitive in the medical imaging business, and eventually left it in the 1980s.
Less well known is that in the 1970s, EMI also delved into the radiotherapy business. SHM Nuclear produced two linacs, the Therapi 4 and 20. When SHM exited the business, EMI assumed responsibility for the install base. They didn’t develop the linear accelerators, however the linac name did change as they were sold as EMI Medical linear accelerators. The company’s US office was in Sunnyvale, California. EMI Medical had several installations, including at the BC Cancer Agency. One of the first radiosurgery techniques was developed on a modified EMI Medical linear accelerator at McGill University. There doesn’t appear to be an association between EMI-CT and EMI-Radiotherapy, and EMI left the business after only a few years. But under different circumstances, and if the Beatles had stayed together longer, who knows, maybe we would have linacs today named for the fab-four.

Scroll to Top Button Icon