Nuclear medicine pioneer Robert Beck, 1928-2008

August 13, 2008

A pioneer in the diagnostic uses of radiation and the development and testing of radiotracers in the early days of nuclear medicine, Robert N. Beck, professor emeritus in the Department of Radiology at the University of Chicago, died at the University of Chicago Medical Center on August 6, 2008, from myelodysplasia, a form of leukemia. He was 80.

Together with Paul Harper, Katherine Lathrop and Don Charleston, Beck was a key member of a University of Chicago research team that was one of the first to investigate several of the tools of modern nuclear medicine. They are perhaps best known for introducing technetium-99m into clinical practice in the early 1960s as a radiotracer agent. This substance is now used about 35,000 times a day in the United States and 20 million times a year worldwide in nuclear medicine scans designed to identify tumors or abnormal physiologic processes.

Beck was also known for his fundamental role in developing the theoretical framework at the core of much of nuclear medicine and for bringing mathematical rigor to imaging systems, such as SPECT and PET scans, that rely on injection of radioactive agents that could be detected within the body by external sensors.

"Bob Beck was a remarkable guy who ultimately changed the way we see things that are invisible to light," said Randy Brill, MD, PhD, research professor of radiology and radiological sciences at Vanderbilt University Medical Center. "He provided much of the foundation for the detection and processing of radiologic signals. His work still serves as the basis for the design for many modern systems."

"In many ways, Bob set the stage for the emergence of nuclear medicine," said Harrison Barrett, PhD, vice chair of radiology and professor of radiology, optical sciences and applied mathematics at the University of Arizona. "He brought much-needed rigor to the field of imaging systems. In those days, you almost never saw an equation in the Journal of Nuclear Medicine, but one of Bob's first papers had about 50."

"People in the field called him 'Mr. Collimator,'" said his colleague Chin-Tu Chen, PhD, associate professor of radiology at the University of Chicago. "To this day, many nuclear imaging systems are based on his ideas and calculations on how collimators, the devices that select and screen the raw data for single-photon images, perform."

"Bob was extremely bright," said John Aarsvold, PhD, assistant professor of radiology (nuclear medicine) at Emory University and the Atlanta Veterans Affairs Medical Center. He was scientifically curious--always seeking an explanation--and he had unfailing professional and personal integrity. Individuals at all levels of numerous scientific communities had great
respect for him."

Robert Nason Beck was born March 26, 1928, in San Angelo, Tex., a small town about 350 miles southwest of Dallas. He completed one year at San Angelo College, then, in 1946, joined the United States Navy, where he learned electronics and worked as an electronic technician aboard the U.S.S. Franklin D. Roosevelt.

In 1948, Beck returned to college, this time at the University of Chicago, where he worked part time as a technician in various labs. "From high school days, Bob was pointed to a career in Physics," Brill said, "but he was deeply troubled by the moral issues raised by the role of physics in the atomic bomb project." This prompted him to change directions for several years, taking a broad range of courses and reading on his own on philosophical, sociological and literary topics. He earned a bachelor of arts from the university in 1954.

That year, however, the opportunity to work as a part-time electronics technician on projects involving medical applications of physics and engineering "redirected his physics and engineering talents," Brill said. He began working on early imaging instruments for the nuclear medicine group in the newly created Argonne Cancer Research Hospital (ACRH), earned his B.S. in mathematics in 1955, completed the undergraduate physics curriculum, and met fellow student, Ariadne Plumis, whom he married in 1958.

Although he began work on a master's degree in mathematics, his abundant theoretical and mathematical skills soon made him an indispensable member of the University's nuclear medicine team and he never had the opportunity to complete his formal advanced training. Not having the graduate degree did not hold him back. He learned, or invented, whatever he had to know and quickly rose through the academic ranks. He was appointed as a chief scientist at Argonne Cancer Research Hospital in 1957, joined the faculty as an assistant professor of medicine in 1964, was promoted to associate professor of radiology in 1967, and professor of radiology and section chief of radiological sciences in 1976.

In 1977 he was named director of the University of Chicago's Franklin McLean Memorial Research Institute, which replaced the Argonne Cancer Research Hospital. In 1986 he founded and became director of the Center for Imaging Science, designed to pull together the many disciplines at the University and Argonne National Laboratory that rely on all sorts of imaging tools and methods.

The technetium story, however, began much earlier. Soon after Beck joined the University's nuclear medicine team, he began working with Harper, Lathrop and Charleston on the project that not only launched his career but also helped create an entire field.

In 1960, Beck authored a theoretical study--his first published paper--suggesting that gamma rays, such as those produced by technetium 99m, would be ideal for scanning the brain. At about
the same time, Paul Harper happened to sit next to Powell Richards--a chemist at Brookhaven National Laboratory who had developed a method for producing technetium 99m--on a flight to a meeting in Rome. They spent the time aloft discussing possible uses of technetium.

Their ideas soon came together and in 1961 the ACRH team performed the first technetium brain scan--which was "not very good," recalled Beck. However, it encouraged the team to design and build their own scanner. They performed the first brain scan with the new device in 1963. This time it was, according to Beck, "spectacular." They published the results in January, 1964, the first publication to mention clinical applications of technetium, and "the field took off," Beck said. The discovery played a key role in establishing nuclear medicine as a medical specialty, and technetium is still the most commonly used radioisotope in the field.

Beck made several other important contributions. He designed scanning devices for radionuclide imaging, optimized collimator design, and evaluated the trade-offs between spatial resolution and sensitivity. He also played key roles in creating the University of Chicago's positron emission tomography (PET) facility, helping to build one of the first PET scanners in the Midwest in 1981. In addition, he led the initiative to establish the University of Chicago Medical Center’s first magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) facility, the Goldblatt MRI Center, in 1985.

A prolific researcher and author, Beck published nearly 250 scientific papers, presented at imaging conferences all over the world and served on national and international committees in the field, especially for the Society of Nuclear Medicine and the International Atomic Energy Agency.

Even after retirement in 1998, he continued to make theoretical contributions, most recently writing his perspective on how "imaging science" might be defined: identifying its scope and its underlying principles, concepts, strategies, and methods, defining its unique intellectual agenda and suggesting how to accelerate progress and establish imaging science as an important new discipline.

Beck won several awards for this work. In 1991 he received the Aebersold Award for outstanding achievement from the Society of Nuclear Medicine, and the Computerworld Smithsonian Nominee Award, for "visionary" use of information technology in the field of imaging science. In 1996 he received the Medical Imaging Scientist Award from the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers. In 2006, The University of Chicago awarded him the Paul C. Hodges Alumni Society Excellence Award.

He was also known as a teacher. Beck taught the physics of nuclear medicine course at the University of Chicago for 30 years and helped to establish the graduate program in medical physics. He designed an imaging Science Exhibit that opened at the Museum of Science and Industry in 1993, which received an award as the best museum science exhibit to open in 1993 in the United States.

"His vision and passion for nuclear medicine and imaging science have inspired our own life-long commitment to research in these areas," Chen said. "He taught and led by example and he set a fine one, always thinking about others before worrying about himself."

Beck is survived by his wife, Ariadne, of Indian Head Park, Ill., and two sisters, Mary Ann Beck and Dorothy Corbell of San Angelo, Tex.

After a wake on Sunday, Aug. 10, there was a private burial on Monday, Aug. 11. In lieu of flowers, contributions should be sent to the Brain Research Foundation, the Nature Conservancy or the Native American College Fund.

A memorial service to celebrate Beck's life and accomplishments is being planned for Sept. 25 at 4:30 p.m. in Bond Chapel at the University of Chicago.

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