Skip to main content

Mackie to receive highest honor in medical physics

May 12, 2014 By Brian Mattmiller

Thomas “Rock” Mackie, director of medical engineering at the Morgridge Institute for Research, will receive the highest honor in the field of medical physics for his far-reaching contributions to medical imaging.

Mackie, emeritus professor of medical physics at University of Wisconsin–Madison, will receive the William D. Coolidge Award from the American Association of Physicists in Medicine (AAPM) in July. The award is named after Coolidge, the inventor of the X-ray tube that paved the way for modern medical X-ray technology.

Photo: "Rock" Mackie

Thomas “Rock” Mackie in the Morgridge Advanced Fabrication Laboratory with a new type of 3-D printing platform he invented.

Highlights of Mackie’s career in UW–Madison medical physics include the mentoring of 40 Ph.D. students, generating 42 medical technology patents, and founding two influential Wisconsin companies. The most well known is TomoTherapy (sold to Accuray in 2011), which markets a technology that delivers radiation doses that are precisely sculpted around tumors. The company has more than 600 employees and has generated more than $1.5 billion in sales.

The other company, Geometrics Corp., produces radiation therapy treatment planning software under the name Pinnacle and used in more than 300,000 patient treatments annually. Now owned by Philips Healthcare and based in Fitchburg, Wisconsin, the company has more than 70 employees.

Mackie, who retired from medical physics in 2011, says he considers himself an “accidental entrepreneur” who pursued commercialization primarily to keep good ideas moving forward. In the case of Geometrics, Mackie says his team planned to give the software away — a typical academic research practice — until the FDA informed them the software is regulated as a medical device and they needed to incorporate to get FDA approval.

TomoTherapy was a similar accident, in that it began as a corporate sponsored research project. But when the supporting company shifted out of the radiation therapy business and eliminated funding, commercialization became the only way to keep the project alive.

Mackie considers himself an ‘accidental entrepreneur’ who pursued commercialization primarily to keep good ideas moving forward. 

Mackie credits UW–Madison for its accommodating and forward thinking related to technology transfer, noting that it would have only taken one “no” from university leadership to have shut down both ventures, which were not without risk and posed a major time commitment.

“I’m very proud of being allowed to have so many facets to my career — certainly the academic facet, the entrepreneur facet, and getting involved in policy,” Mackie says. “I can’t be more proud of being at UW–Madison, and of this university’s ability to allow me to have such a rich career.”

Mackie is currently involved in university entrepreneurship policy as founder of the Advocacy Consortium for Entrepreneurs (ACE), a group working to reduce barriers for faculty, staff and students with commercial ideas. At the Morgridge Institute, he leads efforts to create technology that can better diagnose, treat and prevent disease, and leads advanced fabricating resources that are open to campus scientists.

“Coming to Morgridge has really been freeing,” Mackie says. “Rather than working just within the field of radiation therapy, I have been able to generalize and look for other technologies that could be game-changing.” Since joining Morgridge, Mackie has worked on new platforms for CT (computed therapy) scanning and new 3-D printing techniques.

Mackie becomes the fourth UW–Madison medical physicist to receive the Coolidge Award. John Cameron, the founder of the UW–Madison medical physics program, won in 1980; Herb Attix, the world’s leading dosimetry expert, won in 1994; and Bhudatt Paliwal, a 40-year veteran of the department, won in 2002.

Candidates for the award are nominated to AAPM and considered based on their overall contributions to medical physics, professional development of future medical physicists, and national leadership and service. Mackie will receive the award July 21 in Austin, Texas.