September 25, 2008
Vol. 28 No. 1

current issue
archive / search
Chronicle RSS Feed

    Beck, nuclear medicine pioneer, worked on imaging systems

    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 Radiology, died Wednesday, Aug. 6, 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 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.

    Beck also was 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.

    “Bob Beck was a remarkable guy who ultimately changed the way we see things that are invisible to light,” said Randy Brill, 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.”

    Beck’s colleague Chin-Tu Chen, Associate Professor in Radiology, said, “People in the field called him ‘Mr. Collimator.’ To this day, many nuclear imaging systems are based on his ideas and calculations of how collimators, the devices that select and screen the raw data for single-photon images, perform.”

    Robert Nason Beck was born March 26, 1928, in San Angelo, Texas, where 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 headed to Chicago, where he worked part time as a technician in various University 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, taking a broad range of courses and working toward his A.B. from Chicago 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, 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. Instead, Beck 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, and joined the faculty as an Assistant Professor in Medicine in 1964. By 1976, Beck was a Professor in Radiology and Section Chief of Radiological Sciences.

    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 had authored his first paper on a theoretical study, suggesting that gamma rays, such as those produced by technetium-99m, would be ideal for scanning the brain. About the same time, Paul Harper and Powell Richards, a chemist at Brookhaven National Laboratory, had been 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, which they used to perform its first brain scan in 1963. This time it was, according to Beck, “spectacular.” They published the results in January 1964, and “the field took off,” Beck said.

    Beck made several other important contributions, having played a key role in creating the University’s positron emission tomography 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 Medical Center’s first magnetic resonance imaging facility, the Goldblatt MRI Center, in 1985.

    Beck also taught the physics of nuclear medicine course at the University for 30 years and helped to establish the graduate program in medical physics. “His vision and passion for nuclear medicine and imaging science have inspired our own lifelong 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’s wife, Ariadne, of Indian Head Park, Ill., and sisters, Mary Ann Beck and Dorothy Corbell of San Angelo, Texas, survive him.

    A memorial service to celebrate Beck’s life and accomplishments will begin at 4:30 p.m. today in Bond Chapel.