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South African physicist Alan MacLeod Cormack originally wanted to be an astronomer.
Alan MacLeod Cormack was a dedicated scientific researcher. Originally a South African physicist, Alan MacLeod Cormack was first concerned with nuclear physics. But an interest in CT scanning and the groundbreaking research he produced in this field thereafter eventually made Alan MacLeod Cormack a Nobel Prize winner.
Cormack was born in Johannesburg and grew up in Cape Town. He first studied electrical engineering, but with a growing interest in physics and mathematics, he abandoned these studies and turned to physics.
He completed his Bachelor and Masters degrees in physics and crystallography (the study of the arrangement of atoms in solids) at the University of Cape Town before attending Cambridge's St. John's College as a research student. He began work in the Cavendish Laboratory researching Helium-6, but returned to South Africa after marrying American student Barbara Seavey to take up a lecturing post at his former Alma Mater.
While working on nuclear physics in Cape Town, Cormack chanced upon the subject today known as computed tomography (medical imaging using a series of 2D images to generate a 3D image) or CT scanning. Although he didn't do much in this field at the time, it remained a side-line interest.
After a sabbatical at Harvard University, where Cormack undertook nucleon-nucleon scattering experiments, the couple decided to move to America. Cormack accepted a post as professor at Tufts University, where he remained for much of his career.
Cormack became increasingly interested in CT scanning and the problems associated with this procedure. After 1970, he dedicated most of his time to this subject, publishing several papers on his research in this area.
This paved the way for the development of the first CT scanner, which was invented using Cormack's theoretical findings in 1971 by Godfrey Hounsfield. Both Cormack and Hounsfield were awarded the 1979 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine for their independent efforts in this regard.
Cormack passed away in Massachusetts at 74-years-old and was posthumously awarded the South African Order of Mapungubwe in 2002 for his outstanding scientific achievements.