The Rest of the Story 4

Brad Roth
2 min readFeb 23, 2024
Imagining the Elephant: A Biography of Allan MacLeod Cormack. by Christopher Vaughan.

Allan was born in Johannesburg, the youngest of three children. He spent his teenage years in Cape Town, and was interested in debating, tennis, and acting. He also loved astronomy, which triggered an interest in physics and mathematics.

At the University of Cape Town he studied electrical engineering, following in the footsteps of his father and brother. But he soon abandoned engineering to learn physics and to engage in mountaineering. After he obtained his undergraduate degree, he went to England and studied physics at the Cavendish Laboratory in Cambridge.

He didn’t finish his PhD, however, because in Paul Dirac’s quantum mechanics class he fell in love with one of his classmates, an American physics student named Barbara Seavey. He wanted to marry her but he had no money. As fortune would have it, there was a teaching position available back in Cape Town. He married Barbara and returned home to South Africa. There he was happy, but isolated from cutting edge research. He didn’t seem posed for success in the high-power and competitive world of physics.

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At Cape Town Allan eventually qualified for a sabbatical, which Barbara wanted to spend in the United States. So they traveled to the Harvard cyclotron, where he worked on nucleon-nucleon scattering with Norman Ramsey and Richard Wilson. While on sabbatical leave, he was offered a position at Tufts University.

Allan became interested in a computer imaging problem: how to make a 2-d image of the inside of an object based on projections taken at different angles. He published the results of this work, but it didn’t make a splash. No one seemed to care about his algorithm. So he went back to his research on high energy physics.

Several years latter, researchers suddenly began to pay attention to Allan’s imaging work. Medical doctors were interested in forming two- or even three-dimensional images of the body using X-rays applied from different directions. Allan’s algorithm was exactly what they needed.

These studies became fundamental to the emerging field of medical imaging. It was so important, that in 1979 he- Allan MacLeod Cormack-and Godfrey Hounsfield shared the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine for the invention of computed tomography.

And now you know the rest of the story.

Good day!


This blog post was written in the style of Paul Harvey’s “ The Rest of the Story” radio program. You can find three other of my “The Rest of the Story” blog posts here, here, and here.

The content is based on Cormack’s biography on the Nobel Prize website. You can read about tomographic reconstruction techniques in Chapter 12 of Intermediate Physics for Medicine and Biology.

Allan MacLeod Cormack was born on February 23, 1924, exactly 100 years ago today.

Happy birthday Allan!

Originally published at



Brad Roth

Professor of Physics at Oakland University and coauthor of the textbook Intermediate Physics for Medicine and Biology.