Nuclear medicine pioneer Robert Beck dies

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Robert N. Beck, a pioneer in the diagnostic uses of radiation and the development and testing of radiotracers in nuclear medicine, died Aug. 6 at the University of Chicago Medical Center from myelodysplasia, a form of leukemia. He was 80 years old.

Together with Paul Harper, Katherine Lathrop and Don Charleston, Beck was a member of a University of Chicago research team that introduced technetium-99m into clinical practice in the early 1960s as a radiotracer agent.

"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,” said his colleague Chin-Tu Chen, PhD, associate professor of radiology at the University of Chicago.

Born March 26, 1928, in San Angelo, Texas, Beck 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. In 1948, Beck returned to college, this time at the University of Chicago, where he earned a bachelor of arts in 1954.

He began working on early imaging instruments for the nuclear medicine group in the Argonne Cancer Research Hospital (ACRH) at the university while earning his B.S. in mathematics in 1955. He was appointed as a chief scientist at ACRH 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 ACRH. In 1986, he founded and became director of the Center for Imaging Science, which pulled together all disciplines at the university and Argonne National Laboratory that rely on imaging tools and methods.

Beck also designed scanning devices for radionuclide imaging, optimized collimator design and evaluated the trade-offs between spatial resolution and sensitivity. He played a role in creating the University of Chicago's 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 MRI facility, the Goldblatt MRI Center, in 1985.

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