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Hopkins Medicine Magazine - Giant of Nuclear Medicine

Hopkins Medicine Winter 2013

Giant of Nuclear Medicine

Date: February 1, 2013

Henry Wagner pioneered the use of PET imaging.

Leaders and colleagues in nuclear medicine employed unusual adjectives—for a scientist—when they spoke about Henry Wagner ’52, one of the premier pioneers in the field.

“Jovial,” “generous,” and “gracious” were three of the words used by Frederick H. Fahey, president of the Society of Nuclear Medicine and Molecular Imaging, to describe Wagner. “Brilliant” and “visionary” also were among Wagner’s attributes, Fahey said.

Immensely prolific and influential, Wagner was the first to employ radioactive tracers for the rapid diagnosis of pulmonary embolism and coronary artery disease, which led to significant advances in those fields. He also served as a human guinea pig in the first use of positron emission tomography (PET scanning) to study the living chemistry of the brain.

 He died suddenly on September 25 at his Baltimore home of heart disease complications. He was 85.

A Baltimore native, Wagner spent more than a half-century at Johns Hopkins, earning his bachelor’s and medical degrees in 1948 and 1952, respectively, then completing both his internship and residency at Hopkins Hospital. He joined the faculty in 1959 as an associate professor of medicine and radiology, then also became a radiological science faculty member in what now is the Bloomberg School of Public Health in 1984.

He was physician-in-charge of the Hopkins Hospital’s nuclear medicine division from 1964 to 1973.  In 1967, he became a full professor of radiology in Hopkins’ School of Medicine and a full professor of radiological science in the School of Public Health. In 1976, he became director of the Division of Radiation Health Sciences in the School of Public Health. He retired in 1995, receiving professor emeritus status in both the School of Medicine and the School of Public Health. 

 Between 1983 and 1984, Wagner conducted experiments during which he underwent PET scans to make images of dopamine and opiate receptors in the brain. The resulting landmark images enhanced medicine’s knowledge of the brain’s physiology and pathophysiology and paved the way for groundbreaking research in addiction and drug design.

 “For 56 years, Henry Wagner was a towering figure in nuclear medicine, radiology, and public health at Hopkins—and around the world,” said radiologist Richard L. Wahl, who holds the Henry N. Wagner Jr., M.D., Professorship in Nuclear Medicine at Hopkins and is director of its Division of Nuclear Medicine/PET.

As a mentor, Wagner trained more than 500 radiologists, internists, physicians, and scientists, eight of whom went on to become president of the Society of Nuclear Medicine—a position Wagner himself held from 1970 to 1971. He also served as president of the World Federation of Nuclear Medicine and Biology from 1975 to 1978.

Wagner was the author or co-author of more than 800 publications, including peer-reviewed journal articles, books, and chapters. Among his books was a memoir, A Personal History of Nuclear Medicine, published in 2006. Neil A. Grauer

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