Allan M. Cormack


Allan M. Cormack

My parents went from the north of Scotland to South Africa shortly before World War I. My mother had been a teacher and my father was an engineer with the Post Office. I was born in Johannesburg in 1924, the youngest of three children. My family moved around the country quite a lot, as did the families of many civil servants, but after my father’s death in 1936 we settled in Cape Town. There I attended the Rondebosch Boys High School and my interests outside my academic work were debating, tennis, and to a lesser extent, acting. I became intensely interested in astronomy and devoured the popular works of astronomers such as Sir Arthur Eddington and Sir James Jeans, from which I learnt that a knowledge of mathematics and physics was essential to the pursuit of astronomy. This increased my fondness for those subjects.

At that time the prospects for making a living as an astronomer were not good, so on going to the University of Cape Town, I followed in the footsteps of my father and brother and started to study electrical engineering. I was fortunate in that a new engineering curriculum had just been introduced by the then Head of the Electrical Engineering Department, Professor B. L. Goodlet. While serving with Mountbatten in the Far East he had seen the value for engineering of a better grounding in physics and mathematics than had previously been the case, and the new curriculum contained a lot of physics and mathematics. After a couple of years I abandoned engineering and turned to physics. At the University of Cape Town I spent most of my spare time mountaineering either on Table Mountain which was almost our back yard, or on the lovely mountain ranges of the Western Cape Province, and what spare time was not spent on climbing was spent listening to music.

After completing my Bachelor and Masters degrees at Cape Town I went to St. John’s College, Cambridge, as a Research Student. I worked at the Cavendish Laboratory under Prof. Otto Frisch on problems connected with He6. While I made some progress on these problems I did not complete them because of the following circumstances. I had met an American girl, Barbara Seavey, in Dirac’s lectures on quantum mechanics, and a year and a half later I wanted to marry her, but I was broke. An inquiry at the Physics Department at Cape Town elicited not only the information that there was a vacancy there, but also a telegram offering me a position as Lecturer. So in 1950 I returned to Cape Town with a bride but no cyclotron, and so no further work on He6.

Working on nuclear physics in Cape Town was lonely because there were very few nuclear physicists in the country, and the nearest one was six hundred miles away. However Professor R. W. James, head of the Physics Department and my mentor as a student, gave me my head and I learnt a lot and published a few papers. In 1956 I by chance became interested in a problem that is now known as CAT-scanning, but that story will be told elsewhere in this volume.

On my first Sabbatical leave it seemed only reasonable that since my wife had willingly come out to the wilds of Africa with me that I should go to the wilds of America with her. In addition the United States was a very good place to do research, and Harvard was a particularly good place to be in, so I spent my Sabbatical at the Harvard cyclotron doing experiments on nucleon-nucleon scattering with Professors Norman Ransey and Richard Wilson and then graduate student Joseph Palmieri. This was the beginning of a long and happy association with the people at the Harvard Cyclotron amongst whom I must mention particularly its present Director, Andreas Koehler.

While on this Sabbatical leave I was offered a position at Tufts University by the then Chairman of the Physics Department, Professor Julian K. Knipp. I accepted the offer and, except for a brief return to South Africa and a couple of Sabbatical leaves, I have been there ever since, progressing up the academic ladder and being Chairman of the Physics Department from 1968 to 1976. My main interest for most of this time was in nuclear and particle physics and I pursued the CT-scanning problem only intermittently, when time permitted. In 1963 and 1964 I published the results of this work, but as there was practically no response I continued my normal course of research and teaching. In the period 1970-72, I became aware of a number of developments in, or related to CT-scanning, and since then I have devoted much of my time to these problems.

Apart from a little swimming and sailing in the summer, I lead a rather sedentary life, spending a lot of time reading. Since my first discussions of ecological problems with Professor John Day around 1950 and since reading Konrad Lorenz’s “King Solomon’s Ring”, I have become increasingly interested in the study of animals for what they might teach us about man, and the study of man as an animal. I have become increasingly disenchanted with what the thinkers of the so-called Age of Enlightenment tell us about the nature of man, and with what the formal religions and doctrinaire political theorists tell us about the same subject. I recently read Edward Wilson’s book “On Human Nature”, and after this hectic two months of my life culminates in Nobel Week, I look forward to tackling his “Sociobiology”.

My wife and I have three children – Margaret, Jean and Robert. Since 1957 we have lived in the town of Winchester, Mass. which I appreciate for still being governed by that unique New England experiment in democracy: a (limited) Town Meeting and a Board of Selectmen. We enjoy the amenities of New England, particularly summers near, in, and on Lake Winnepesaukee, New Hampshire.

From Les Prix Nobel. The Nobel Prizes 1979, Editor Wilhelm Odelberg, [Nobel Foundation], Stockholm, 1980

This autobiography/biography was written at the time of the award and later published in the book series Les Prix Nobel/ Nobel Lectures/The Nobel Prizes. The information is sometimes updated with an addendum submitted by the Laureate.

Allan M. Cormack died on May 7, 1998.

Copyright © The Nobel Foundation 1979

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