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Star Power

Professor emeritus honors a Nobel-winning friend and colleague

In 1955 X-ray scans were a blur of bone, organs, and soft tissue. You can thank former Tufts physics Professor Allan Cormack for fine-tuning the images that help heal millions of people each year.

While a student at the University of Cape Town in his native South Africa, Cormack put aside his boyhood dream of becoming an astronomer and studied physics because it offered more opportunities. He researched nuclear physics as a fellow at Cambridge University in England and was then recruited by a Cape Town hospital. The only physicist in the region who had handled radioactive isotopes, he was asked to find a way to measure precisely how much X-ray energy was absorbed by the body during a scan.

To do this, he shot X-rays through the body from several angles, and thus discovered that he was able to develop a detailed image of any given cross-section. He went on to study nuclear particles at the Harvard cyclotron and in 1957 joined the Tufts physics department. By the 1960s, he had worked out a mathematical formula to compile accurate X-ray images and published his findings. In 1979 he won the Nobel Prize in medicine with Godfrey Hounsfield for the invention of the CAT scan.

The day the Nobel was announced, Cormack walked into his morning class to a standing ovation. But after a thunderous minute he waved the applause away and started his lecture. “That was Allan,” says former Tufts physics professor Allen Everett of his friend, who died in 1998. “Studies before fame.”

Cormack and Everett began their nearly 40-year friendship at Harvard where Everett, fresh from Princeton and a summer interning at an aeronautical lab, was a graduate student. They bonded over work in the cyclotron (Everett’s Ph.D. thesis focused on theoretical high-energy physics that was similar to Cormack’s work there). When Everett was looking for a teaching and research position, Cormack referred him to his own department at Tufts, which Everett joined in 1960. Each man served as chair of the Department of Physics, Cormack from 1968 to 1976 and Everett from 1977 to 1980.

Everett taught a popular class on time travel and was a founding member of the Tufts Institute of Cosmology, a division of the Department of Physics and Astronomy whose members study theories of the origin and early evolution of the universe. He retired from teaching in 2004, but remained interested in the physics of time travel and co-authored a book, Time Travel and Warp Drives, based on the courses he taught at Tufts.

To honor Cormack and his “monumental achievement,” Everett has established the Professor Allan M. Cormack Fund. The fund will continue Cormack’s groundbreaking legacy by supporting graduate work and faculty members.