The home of the first Magnetic Resonance Imaging body scanner, BrewDog, Oil and honeymoon ready, golden sandy beaches…the ‘Granite City’ of Aberdeen had it all, except the weather!

The home of the first Magnetic Resonance Imaging body scanner, BrewDog, Oil and honeymoon ready, golden sandy beaches…the ‘Granite City’ of Aberdeen had it all, except the weather!

In radiotherapy, Elekta and ViewRay have picked up the MRI baton and ran with it!

In 2007 and just a few months after I moved from London to Aberdeen where I still live close-by to today, two entrepreneurs named James Watt and Martin Dickie started a craft beer company called BrewDog in a shed in one of their back-gardens and called their first brew Punk IPA. They started selling shares in the business and after a while I noticed the beer selling in my local Tesco but not ‘out-with’ Aberdeenshire really. Needless to say, I didn’t buy any equity. I had been tempted but money was very tight and I was more interested selling shares in my own company DHA. In hindsight, the BrewDog initial shares would now be worth a small fortune but they didn’t really match my radiotherapy profile.

BrewDog Punk IPA latest imagery

They bought their first pub in Aberdeen in 2009 and despite dividing opinion on their products and services, the rest is history! By 2019 they had around 80 establishments in the UK and overseas and have now moved into the international Hotel business. Punk IPA is the UK’s most popular craft beer and the company is worth in excess of £100m I believe and they are a truly multi-national brewing business.

Aside from the ‘over-arching’ oil business in Aberdeen which I will come to there are a few other Aberdonian famous sons and daughters such as Open winning golfer Paul Lawrie and the musician Annie Lennox. Aberdeen has fashioned other important people in the past such as Thomas Blake Glover and Bertie Charles Forbes who actually founded the huge Forbes publishing empire that still operates today.

Victorian industrialist Thomas Blake Glover was a Scottish pioneer who became one of the most famous merchants in Japan. He was awarded the Order of the Rising Sun in recognition of the work he did to help transform the country during the Meiji Restoration.

He founded the Mitsubishi company, introduced the first trains to Japan and his colourful life with his wife is said to be the inspiration behind the original ‘Madame Butterfly’.

The world’s first ‘whole-body’ MRI scanner was built in Aberdeen…from scrap! Now both Elekta and Viewray have picked up the baton and run with it in radiotherapy

With the radiotherapy world finally fully embracing MRI for real time, fully adaptive radiotherapy and not just for treatment planning and with MRI guided Linacs now in routine clinical use, the news at the end of February that the Aberdeen pioneer Professor John Mallard who built the world’s first ‘whole-body’ MRI scanner from components that were largely scrap had recently died aged 94, made me sit up.

Scrap copper pipes were used it seems!

When I started as a radiotherapy student in 1980, the word ‘Nuclear Magnetic Resonance Imaging’ or NMR was just starting to enter the lexicon of radiography but there certainly wasn’t one in London as far as I know at the time. The first MRI scanner was installed at the Middlesex Hospital only in 1990, I have from good authority and aside from being a diagnostic tool, MRI use in treatment planning was largely in combination with CT to allow for heterogeneities and the patient’s shape and contours by a method called MR/CT fusion until recently.

Back in 1964 and just 4 years after I was born, (see below!) Prof Mallard who was Aberdeen University’s inaugural professor of medical physics argued that MRI might be able to diagnose tumours, but was largely ignored. He did publish this is in the ‘Nature’ journal at the time with little impact but throughout the 70’s he continued to believe in the technology and maintained his R&D efforts in Aberdeen. In 1980 he built a rather ‘Heath-Robinson’ whole body scanner with some parts that he found in local trade stores, shops and parks and scanned a man, finding lung cancer and metastases in the liver and bones providing the medical world with a sharp reminder of the potential of this technology. This time people sat up and listened as I did above.

Aberdeen University are now working on the next generation of MRI technology but have praised the innovations that Prof Mallard conceived. It seems the initial magnet’s Tesla value was around 100 times weaker than current scanners but provided reasonable diagnostic images.

In 2004 Prof Mallard was given the honour of the ‘freedom of the city’ of Aberdeen to enjoy some of the highlights I have mentioned below and there is no doubt that his vision has saved thousands of lives, year on year.

Elekta Unity MR Linac

And so some 40 years later and about the timeframe that I have been working in radiotherapy Elekta and Viewray have picked up the baton and run with it to the extent that there are now over 60 installations world-wide of MR guided, real-time adaptive radiotherapy treatment delivery units in clinical use. You can read much more here:

Elekta Unity:

ViewRay MRIdian:

Oil boom in Aberdeen

If you visit Aberdeen now the first thing you will see if you drive past the harbour are vast numbers of huge specialist supply vessels that keep the oil rigs working 24/7 and 365 days per year. The sea outside the port is a ‘car-park’ for many others simply waiting to enter. The internal ring road called North Anderson drive is the home to the huge corporate headquarters of the many of the world’s largest oil companies while the international airport at Dyce is by far the busiest helicopter port in the UK with many flights provided by Bristow and Babcock among others.

Aberdeen harbour is right in the city centre and so busy that a new harbour is being built at Nigg, a few miles south.

It’s also no surprise that the airport is popular with regular flights to the Netherlands (Shell Oil) and Norway, while BA have around 7 flights per day to Heathrow, mainly for the international oil industry workers. Most ‘offshore’ staff work 3 weeks on and 3 weeks off and so the city is often full of de-mob happy staff on their way home. About 500,000 people per year use the airport for oil related helicopter flights alone!

Before Covid struck the airport was being developed at an extremely fast rate with new hotels and many new and existing companies who support the oil and gas industry operating from the ever- expanding trading estates surrounding it. The new ‘P&J Live’ conference and exhibition centre on the airport campus opened just in time for lockdown but is an impressive sight and am sure will be well used, Rod Stewart effectively opened it with a sell-out concert but not much has happened since.

The well-known Forties oil field is the largest oil field in the North Sea, 110 miles east of Aberdeen. It was discovered in 1970 and first produced oil in 1975 under the ownership of BP and really the breakthrough that started the oil boom in Aberdeen.

The Brent field is probably the most famous oil and gas field located North-East of Shetland and at a water depth of 140 metres. The field operated by Shell was discovered in 1971. However, decommissioning of the Brent field has now started and will be completed in the early 2020s. Brent crude is still used today as the international metric for pricing oil, although the term now refers to a blend of oil from fields in the northern North Sea.

The largest UK field discovered off Scotland in the past twenty-five years is Buzzard while the largest field found in the past few years or so is located on the Norwegian part of the North Sea and named after ‘Johan Sverdrup’. Total reserves of the field are estimated at 1.7 to 3.3 billion barrels of gross recoverable oil and Johan Sverdrup is expected to produce 120,000 to 200,000 barrels of oil per day. Production started on the 5th October 2019.

The North Sea was once the world’s most active offshore drilling region with around 175 active rigs but as we may have past ‘peak oil’ this industry is now in decline. Depending on economic forecasts and climate change activities this is likely to occur between 2019 and 2040 depending who you speak to!

Unlikely honeymoon venue!

For those of you not in the know, well before ‘Oil’ Aberdeen was a popular post-war summer holiday resort. With miles of golden sandy beaches and promenades, boulevards and ballrooms and a direct train service to the rest of the UK it was Scotland’s more elegant version of Blackpool. The poster below from the 1940’s shows it in all its glory.

Late 1940’s railway poster advertising Aberdeen holidays

If you walk only a mile out of the city centre to the beach, it isn’t all that different today aside from the big oil service boats queueing to get into the harbour and the many wind turbines just off shore and located, much to the chagrin of Donald Trump opposite his new hotel and golf complex at Balmedie, just a few miles north. The ballroom is still there while the greens in the background are now a huge modern amusement park with rides and roller coasters.

The dunes between the sea and the city centre still house one of the country’s nicest public, ‘pay and play’ links golf courses called the ‘Kings Links’ that opened in 1872 and so golf was another reason to come to Aberdeen on holiday even then. A round of golf or ‘green-fee’ on Trump’s new course is £205 and on the Kings Links just £13.50!

‘You pays your money and you takes your choice’ has never been so appropriate when it comes to golf, especially in Scotland.

Kings Links with Pittodrie, home of Aberdeen FC and the city in the background

Anyway, to cut a long story short, my parents came here for their honeymoon in the late 50’s on the train. Without a car and marrying in Suffolk, this journey was not without huge logistical problems and timing issues but they made it and had a good time, I believe. The hotel they used is now demolished and a John Lewis store stands on that spot in the Bon-Accord locality. As they lived in London at time this was to all intents and purposes an odd choice of venue but I can vouch for the fact that the city does have many redeeming features but they could have far more easily gone to Great Yarmouth or Clacton-on-Sea from the wedding! Even today the train and car journeys are over 9 hours long and the weather is not a given anytime of the year, I can assure you.

Radiotherapy in Aberdeen

A new £13.6m radiotherapy centre opened in Aberdeen in 2015 that now has three newish Linacs, HDR and CT-Simulation and was developed in two stages. The first stage completed in 2012 had some DHA supplied neutron shielding that I helped install but that’s another story. The other nearest centres are in Dundee (80 miles) and Inverness (110 miles) and so many people have a very long drive for treatment and even more issues parking and so the trend to hypofractionation is a good thing for us up here!

The new centre in Aberdeen was opened by the ‘Wee Nippy’, First Minister Nicola Sturgeon who seems to have aged considerably in the past few months after looking at these pictures. I won’t go into the latest iterations of Scottish politics here but did cover some in my January blog however things change seemingly by the hour these dark-days and who would have thought that ex SNP leader Alex Salmond would suggest that the current leaders have ‘failed Scotland’. Wow!

Read more:

Duncan Hynd – The April 2021 blog, A Radiographer’s Life, A 40-year career in radiotherapy.