The first patient: a bell pepperThe first image produced using MRI in Germany is from Siemens

It all started out with a bell pepper. In February 1978, Siemens began developing a new technology for medical imaging in Erlangen, a technology that would come to be known today as magnetic resonance imaging (MRI). But before the Siemens developers entered the unit’s narrow opening themselves, they used an unusual test subject – a bell pepper.

Its fairly blurry image is now on display at the Siemens MedMuseum, on Gebbertstrasse, bearing witness to an extraordinary episode in history. “A bell pepper is a nice size, it has a lot of structures, and it doesn’t move during a long exposure time,” says Arnulf Oppelt, one of the first MRI developers, looking back at the exciting early days of this technology. Together with other colleagues, Oppelt worked in fundamental development of MRI technology at Siemens back then. The bell pepper image is the first one taken in Germany using this new method. It took several hours. And the location of the development was also an unusual one – a research lab on Hartmannstrasse, built entirely of wood. Because of the strong magnetic fields used to create MRI images, the scans had to be performed in a room with no iron or steel parts.

Siemens MedMuseum Patient bell pepper first MRI image
The first MRI image in Germany, taken on Erlangen’s Hartmannstrasse: the bell pepper.

After the success with the bell pepper, the team’s courage grew. The first image of a human skull followed just a few months later, in March 1980. Alexander Ganssen, a physicist, volunteered for the scan, lying in the narrow confines of the unit for eight minutes. He had been working with MRI since he was first hired at Siemens, in 1965. His suggestions and developments were instrumental in making advances in the use of magnetic resonance imaging in medical applications. Ganssen also spurred the development of an MRI system in-house at Siemens.

Siemens MedMuseum magnetic resonance imaging Alexander Ganssen
Physicist Alexander Ganssen was the first to dare to undergo a head scan using the MRI unit.

In January 1983, three years after the bell pepper image was taken, the first Siemens MRI system, still a prototype, was installed at Hannover Medical School. More than 800 patients were examined with the system in clinical tests. Not long afterward, the new imaging system also had a name: Magnetom. Like the building where it was developed, the unit’s patient table was also made of wood.

Siemens MedMuseum magnetic resonance imaging
“The first test subjects had to crawl into the magnet on a wooden board, which was quite uncomfortable,” reports one early MRI developer. Shown here is Siemens employee Wilfrid Löffler.

Then, in August 1983, Siemens became the first company in the world to install a commercial MRI system for clinical application, when the Magnetom was put into operation at the Mallinckrodt Institute of Radiology, in St. Louis, Missouri. The first series-produced models were shipped to German medical practices and hospitals not long afterward, in late September.

Siemens MedMuseum magnetic resonance imaging Magnetom
The first MRI system from Siemens, the Magnetom

In the first four years, Siemens sold more than 150 Magnetom units worldwide, many of them to customers in the United States. “Ahead in Japan as well” was the message in 1987, when Siemens became the first manufacturer of MRI systems to win approval there for systems with a higher field strength of 1.5 tesla. Alongside sales successes – Siemens is currently the world’s leading provider of MRI technology – great technological strides have also been made in the period since then. Higher field strengths have brought steady improvements in image quality. To many patients, though, it is a completely different step in MRI development that plays an important role: The systems’ tunnel diameter has been enlarged on an ongoing basis as the magnet itself has grown slimmer. Another crucial advance is that an MRI scan now takes much less time to complete than in the days of the historic bell pepper image, which makes undergoing one much more pleasant. After all, there is good reason that MRI systems are now part of any radiology practice’s basic equipment.