PET scanner innovator Gordon L. Brownell dies

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Gordon L. Brownell, MD, who developed a scanning machine that evolved into a PET scanner, died Nov. 11 in his home in Salem, Mass. Brownell was 86 and had been suffering from pneumonia and complications from throat cancer.

During a career that spanned 58 years, Brownell held a joint appointment at Massachuestts General Hospital (MGH), where since retiring he was honorary physicist in the department of radiology, and at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), where he was professor emeritus of nuclear science and engineering.

More than 50 years after he invented positron emission imaging, the technology is still used "routinely in the care of patients, primarily in the care of patients with cancer," said James H. Thrall, MD, radiologist in chief at MGH.

Two years ago, a committee of the Society of Nuclear Medicine (SNM) presented Brownell with the Loevinger-Berman Award for lifetime contributions.

After inventing the first positron-imaging machine in the early 1950s, he kept working to improve the technology as it flowered into PET.

In his youth, Brownell pursued his doctorate at MIT, but interrupted his studies after a semester to join the Navy. Toward the end of World War II, he worked with a naval research team to develop acoustic devices that protected U.S. ships by detecting the presence of underwater mines.

Living on campus with his family, he completed his doctorate in physics in 1950, and then established the Physics Research Laboratory at MGH while also teaching at MIT.

After graduating, he went to Mendoza, Argentina, where he and other researchers developed treatments for thyroid ailments among a population with iodine deficiencies. That research and his subsequent work developing positron imaging technology turned Brownell into a sought-after speaker, who gave presentations in many countries.

In his 70s, he retired from MIT and MGH, but continued the research that defined his career and launched a field of medical imaging.

In 2002, he was elected to the Institute of Medicine, a nonprofit component of the National Academy of Science whose members offer advice to policy makers in government and industry.

In addition to his wife and son, Brownell is survived by a daughter, Wendy Silverman of Needham, Mass.; two other sons, Peter of Marlborough, Mass., and James of Waltham, Mass.; a stepdaughter, Piia DiMeco of Wilmington, Mass.; a stepson, Janne Kairento of Beverly, Mass.; a brother, Roscoe Jr. of Altoona, Pa.; five grandsons; and two granddaughters.