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The Beatles and Modern Medicine — Who Knew?

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When it comes to the Beatles, ambivalence is a rare descriptor applied to arguably the most famous musical band of all time. One either likes the Beatles and their music or disdains them. Regardless of where one stands on the Beatles, their achievement of occupying the top five positions of Billboard’s Hot 100 in the first week of April 1964 stood unsurpassed for 57 years. And who doesn’t have a favorite Beatles song or poignant memory associated with them?

For me, it is the vivid recollection of watching my older sister’s girlfriends — being only 11 at the time I had to observe from a distance — at the bus stop one frigid February morning in 1964. Nancy squeezed her copy of the recently released “Meet the Beatles!” album to her chest like it was Paul McCartney himself whom she was keeping warm, while arguing he was much cuter than John, George, or Ringo.

And what is hardly known at all, which is quite surprising given the overall impact the Beatles had on society, is the large role the Beatles played in modern medicine in the latter half of the 20th century. 

While lecturing MS3s on pelvic masses and imaging options, I would always pose the question, “What social phenomenon of the 20th century led to the development of CT imaging?” Over the course of seven years, only one student, the son of a radiologist, ever offered the correct answer — the Beatles.

The gramophone was first invented in the 1880s as an improvement on Thomas Edison’s cylindrical phonograph. Following the formation of Electric and Musical Industries (EMI) in 1931, engineers at the company developed the automatic record changer, stereophonic records, magnetic recording tape (which revolutionized studio recording), and eventually pioneered commercial television systems in 1937 for the BBC. And in a move to ensure world-wide financial stability, EMI acquired Capitol Records in the U.S.

Enter the Beatles.

In the late 1960s, Godfrey Hounsfield, an electronics and electrical engineer at EMI, first conceptualized linking X-rays, data processing, and cathode ray tube display technologies in a complex and precise manner that became known as computerized tomography. Hounsfield’s research and development required funding, and it was the extremely strong influx of money ($3.5 billion in today’s dollars) into EMI coffers from the sale of Beatles records that gave EMI an “unprecedented global outlook” and put them in a very strong financial position going into the 1970s. 

By 1970, initial clinical trials were deemed a huge success for what was then called the EMI scanner. At the 1973 Radiological Society of North American (RSNA) annual meeting, the EMI scanner captured everyone’s attention. By the end of the year, of the approximately 7,000 hospitals in the U.S., only two institutions had an EMI scanner — the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota, and Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston. By 1975, most major cities had at least one hospital with an EMI scanner, Henry Ford Hospital in Detroit being one of them. The initial cost of the first generation EMI scanner was $390,000, and it only imaged the brain. Subsequently, it was the rapidly developing competition that introduced whole-body imaging. By the time of the 1976 RSNA annual meeting, 16 different companies, including EMI, were offering the improved whole-body CT scanner.

It’s truly ironic the Beatles didn’t start out wanting to change anything at all when they first captivated the media and popular culture, yet change followed in almost every nook and cranny of society. By 1968, a cultural revolution was well underway, and the Beatles were astute enough to realize it when their “White Album” was released, as their lyrics show: “You say you want a revolution/ Well you know/ We’d all love to change the world/ You tell me that it’s evolution/ Well you know/ We’d all love to change the world.” 

In our world of medicine, some changes evolve slowly, others occur rapidly. A prime example is in the world of general surgery and the explosion of minimally invasive surgery and surgical techniques. How we adapt to and embrace these changes truly determines our success personally and professionally. 

Imagine — I couldn’t resist — if the Beatles had sung about how to deal with the changes they promulgated, or if they wrote songs and sang about how to accept change. We might all be better equipped to navigate the world we now occupy.

What other social phenomena have had a notable impact on modern medicine? Discuss in the comment section.

Lloyd Holm is a retired obstetrician who lives in Cottage Grove, Minnesota with his wife, Gretchen. He has authored two novels and a children’s book and his writings have appeared in the Omaha World Herald, The Female Patient, Iowa Medicine, Contemporary OB/GYN, Hospital Drive, the American Journal of Obstetrics and Gynecology, and Obstetrics and Gynecology. While a member of the teaching faculty at the University of Nebraska Medical Center in Omaha, he received the Dean's Award for Excellence in Clinical Education and The Hirschmann Golden Apple Award. Dr. Holm was a 2021-2022 Doximity Op-Med Fellow, and is currently a 2022-2023 Doximity Op-Med Fellow.

Image by Erin Cadigan / Shutterstock

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