Dec 4, 2008
Steve Webb: a life in a day
This week saw the 60th birthday celebrations of one of the world's most eminent medical physicists: Steve Webb, professor of radiological physics at the UK's Institute of Cancer Research/Royal Marsden Hospital. To mark the occasion, his colleague Phil Evans organized a birthday symposium to celebrate Webb's career. The day also recognized the pioneering work of the hospital during the last three decades. Jon Ruffle went along to the Royal Marsden's Sutton site to partake in the day's festivities.
The symposium comprised a series of lectures, presented by Webb's colleagues and collaborators, past and present. Many of his former students are now professors themselves, working in Europe and North America. Clearly, Webb's influence on medical physics spreads far beyond the walls of the Royal Marsden.
Webb's career path is a diverse one that would be hard to replicate today. He gained a PhD in cosmic-ray physics from Imperial College, London, in 1973. With such a background it would be easy to imagine him never even considering medical physics as a career. It was thanks to Robert Speller - now head of radiation physics at University College London - that Webb was introduced to the subject. After finishing his PhD, where he worked alongside Webb, Speller had moved into medical physics. The following year, after consultations with his friend, Webb applied for a job at the Royal Marsden Hospital.
The Royal Marsden of the early 1970s was a very different environment to that seen today. It was a world without targets, performance goals or even job descriptions. "You just got on with things," remarked Webb, "you were trusted to do your job". It was this more relaxed workplace that allowed Webb to pursue many varied aspects of medical physics. His early work was in the field of CT. In the mid 1970s, Webb and colleagues built a CT scanner by cannibalizing a radioisotope scanner. This work was followed by research in nuclear medicine, with one of the hospital's first PET scanners (named MUPPET) housed in a freight container on a lorry in the car park.
From nuclear medicine, Webb moved on to radiation therapy - including treatment planning, and intensity-modulated and image-guided radiotherapies. Arguably, it is for his work in these areas that he is most celebrated. In 1989, Webb published his seminal radiotherapy treatment-planning paper (Phys. Med. Biol. 34 1349), following which, he has gone on to publish more than 150 papers on radiotherapy.
In 1996, Webb was granted a professorship at the Royal Marsden. Two years later he was made head of the Joint Department of Physics. As well as being an active scientist and running his department, Webb is also Editor-in-Chief of the journal Physics in Medicine & Biology, and the journal's most published author, with over 100 publications to date.
Along with celebrating Webb's academic achievements, many of the speakers at the symposium discussed his other obsessions - such as running model steam trains, ice dancing and building mediaeval instruments. The day concluded with the cutting of a vast, train themed, birthday cake.
At 60, Steve Webb's career is still a work in progress. The symposium may have celebrated a 35-year career in medical physics, but it was also about looking forward to what is yet to come.
About the author
Jon Ruffle is publishing editor for Physics in Medicine & Biology.