Pioneer in imaging science, Charles Metz, 1942-2012

July 4, 2012

Charles E. Metz, PhD, professor of radiology and a member of the Committee on Medical Physics at the University of Chicago Medicine, died from pancreatic cancer on July 4 at his home in Burr Ridge. He was 69 years old.

Metz, a recognized leader in using mathematics to assess and improve the accuracy of diagnostic tests, made contributions to radiological imaging, nuclear medicine, and computer-aided diagnosis. He developed the "Metz filter," widely used to enhance resolution and remove distractions from nuclear-medicine images. He was perhaps best known for extending receiver operating characteristic (ROC) analysis to the medical imaging field and for providing, free of charge, an extensive package of computer software to more than 10,000 registered users worldwide.

Metz's pioneering work is highly regarded and widely cited. He contributed to image collection, improved recovery of three-dimensional information from overlapping two-dimensional images, and applied novel evaluation methods to conventional and digital X-ray images. More recently, he focused on large-scale evaluation of computer-aided diagnosis in mammography, chest X-rays and CT scans.

"Charles was a true scientist, educator and mentor of the highest caliber," said Maryellen Giger, PhD, professor and vice chair for basic science research in the Department of Radiology, chair of the Committee on Medical Physics, and director of the Imaging Research Institute at the University of Chicago Medicine. "He was one of the giants in elucidating the mathematical foundations of imaging science."

He also was an extraordinary teacher for colleagues as well as the students who came to him for advice. "Whether you were a tenured professor or an undergraduate, he could explain anything in the field in the most thorough and appropriate way," recalled Giger, a former graduate student with Metz. "He would go through it with you until he was convinced you understood it."

Ronald Thisted, PhD, chairman of the Department of Health Studies at the University of Chicago Medicine, called him "an ideal colleague."

"He was generous with his time, especially with younger colleagues," Thisted said. "He would consider your ideas or read your manuscript carefully and make valuable suggestions. His advice was always positive, encouraging and constructive."

Metz focused his attention on ROC analysis, which emerged during World War II for use with radar signals. It entered medical research in the late 1960s as an index of the accuracy and reliability of medical tests.

"ROC provided radiologists with a way to objectively measure how data are presented in an image, how people perceive those images and how to compare different observers or different imaging modalities with each other," said chest-imaging specialist Heber MacMahon, MD, professor of radiology at the University of Chicago Medicine. "Charles adopted the theoretical principles from other fields and wrote the definitive papers applying ROC analysis to radiology. His work helps us make better clinical decisions from diagnostic images."

Charles Edgar Metz was born on Sept. 11, 1942, in Bay Shore, N.Y. His family moved to Freeport, Long Island, when he was 4 years old. He graduated with honors from Bowdoin College in Brunswick, Maine, with a bachelor's degree in physics, followed by a master's degree in 1966 and a Ph.D. in radiological physics from the University of Pennsylvania in 1969. He met his wife, also a graduate student, at the University and they married in 1967. Although they divorced in 1987, they remained close friends.

He came to the University of Chicago soon after graduation as an instructor in the Department of Radiology and the Argonne Cancer Research Hospital, a campus facility sponsored by the Atomic Energy Commission and dedicated to the study of atomic energy in the detection and treatment of cancer. He stayed at the University for the rest of his career, rising to assistant professor in 1971, associate professor in 1975, and professor in 1980. He served as director of the graduate programs in medical physics from 1979 to 1986 and on multiple institutional as well as national and international committees and advisory boards, including study sections for the National Institutes of Health.

Metz published more than 250 scientific papers -- one of which, "Basic principles of ROC analysis" -- has been cited nearly 3,000 times since it was published in 1978, according to Google Scholar. He holds four patents for image-analysis tools. He served as an advisor for 38 doctoral students, many of whom are now leading figures in the field, and has presented more than 80 invited lectures throughout the United States, Europe and Japan.

Metz received awards for teaching as well as research. He was named a fellow by the American Association of Physicists in Medicine in 2004 and honored with the L.H. Gray Medal from the International Commission on Radiation Units and Measurements at its Conference of Medical Physics in Nuremberg, Germany, in 2005 for his "fundamental contributions to basic and applied radiation science."

He was also an inspiring, generous, supportive and genuinely funny father and friend, his daughters pointed out. "Dad truly was as good as they come," said his younger daughter, Molly, "There are just not enough positive words to convey how special a man he was and the contributions he made."

He taught us "love, friendship, grace, courage, humility, humor, intelligence, compassion, gratitude, excellence, kindness, rock & roll, cars, airplanes, family and much more," wrote his other daughter, Becky.

Both daughters, and several colleagues, cite his tendency to give impressively thorough answers, even to straightforward questions, such as those about algebra homework. "I love to learn," Becky wrote, but "I did roll my eyes after a half-hour answer."

Metz was a fan of high-performance automobiles and an authority on World War II German aircraft, the machines that were the initial focus of ROC analysis. The forum for the Large Scale Aircraft Modeling website is dominated this week by the loss of "his incredible knowledge," according to one commentator, "of all things aviation-related."

Metz is survived by his two daughters, Molly Metz of Seattle, Wash., and Becky Metz Mavon of Western Springs, Ill.; three grandchildren, Charlie, Avery and Oni; and former wife, Maryanne Metz of Chicago.

A memorial service will be held at 11 a.m. Monday, August 27, in the University of Chicago's Rockefeller Chapel, followed by a reception in the Cloister Club in nearby Ida Noyes Hall.

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