Michel Ter-Pogossian (1925-1996)

Michel Ter-Pogossian and the first in-hospital cycltron, May 1966. Credit: Prior Health Sciences Library, The Ohio State University.

Michel Ter-Pogossian was an American physicist and a pioneer of positron emission tomography (PET). He turned PET from a laboratory concept into a medical device used in hospitals. PET scanners tracked radioactive tracers given to the body and produced images of body function, such as blood flow.

Ter-Pogossian was born in Berlin to an Armenian family fleeing persecution during the First World War. He lived for many years in France, but emigrated to the United States in 1947, where he joined the physics department at Washington University. There he spent his career improving medical imaging.

Ter-Pogossian wanted to find medical uses for radioactive substances. He needed a machine called a cyclotron, a type of particle accelerator that produced radioactive substances. He campaigned to get the first cyclotron used for medicine built at Washington University.

Ter-Pogossian and other scientists realised it was possible to track radioactive substances in the body. Unlike other scientists, he experimented with radioactive forms of oxygen, nitrogen and carbon. He used these substances to visually trace how oxygen and other chemicals were used around the body.

During the 1970s, Ter-Pogossian led a research team to build the first practical PET scanners for hospitals. He became widely known as the ‘father of PET’.