Scans and Smiles: Alumnus Creator of CT Scanner Visits Campus

Olivet Alumni Spotlight: Gerard Pence ’66 

This fall Gerard Pence ’66 and his wife, Judi (Hjort) ’66, visited the campus of Olivet Nazarene University for Prime Time Day. While visiting, they met with President Gregg Chenoweth, Ph.D., along with sophomore Spencer James and Chelsea Speas ’13/MBA ’18, associate director of student life and recreation, who both received medical care aided by the technology of computerized tomography (CT) scanning. Also in attendance were Dr. Dan Sharda and Dr. Dale Hathaway.

Gerard grew up immersed both in science and the Olivet community. His father, Professor Elbert Pence, created the physics major at Olivet, where he taught for seven years. There were many pivotal moments on Olivet’s campus for the younger Pence. Gerard was on campus during the infamous tornado that caused severe damage in 1963. He also was one of the first students who could take an introduction to computing course in 1965. Olivet is where he met many life-long friends.

After completing his degree in physics from Olivet, Gerard continued his studies at the University of Maryland. The master of science program was supported by a computer science assistantship during his first year, and then through work at the National Biomedical Research Foundation (NBR) for his final two years. During his graduate studies, Gerard worked for Dr. Robert S. Ledley, the director of NBR, who gave him a job at NBR after graduation.

“I was the manager of NBR's computer center which supported [various] projects,” he reflected. “In addition, I was the programmer for 5 or 10 major projects NBR was doing. These usually involved some type of medical imaging and automatic analysis of the image by computer programming.”

The last project that Gerard worked on at NBR was that of the CT scanner. The lab facilities of NBR were located on the campus of Georgetown University where Dr. Ledley and a team of others developed and then patented the design and software programming for a new CT scanner. Although the technology behind CT scans was not revolutionary at that time, the machine that Gerard contributed to could fit the entire human body, which vastly improved the scope, scale and cost of the original technology.

“We did the project in record time [and often] worked 16-hour days. But, it was fun and successful. After I left, a lot of work was done on the machine, tuning the hardware and software to get the most [detail] out of the images.”

Submitted photo from G. Pence (pictured second from the left) with members of the NBR team.

 

The ACTA Model 0100 CT Scanner that Gerard worked on is now housed in the collection of the Smithsonian Institution. In retrospect, what was an extremely cool early career job for Gerard, has been a critical element of life-saving health care for millions of people over the past 50 years.

“I feel grateful for the opportunity I had to make a major change in the medical field,” Gerard said. “A CT scan is not something people do without cause, so I realize the CT experience for people is one of trauma. It brings me a little sadness mixed with celebration for the success of a surgery that might not have been possible before the CT existed.”

After receiving more than 15 CT scans in treatment for cancer in her mouth, Chelsea Speas wholeheartedly echoes the sentiment.

“As a cancer patient at the University of Chicago Medicine, I have been able to experience first-hand several of the newest technologies, specifically image-guided radiation therapy, which targets radiation to tumors while sparing healthy tissue. Seven years of being cancer-free and maintaining my best possible quality of life, I know it's because of God's grace, innovative people like Gerard Pence, and modern technology!”

Even more than an appreciation for science and technology, Gerard reflected his focus in life is one of faithful endurance.

“If I have any legacy, I simply want to be sure that I have followed God's leading every day.”

For more information about the Departments of Computer Science, Biology, Mathematics or Engineering, contact the Office of Admissions at admissions@olivet.edu or 800-648-1463.

Published: 11/28/2022
LB