Handing out prizes for scientific achievements is, by its nature, a controversial business. More often than not, assigning credit to an individual for an invention or breakthrough means leaving out others who played an important part.

When the award is as prestigious as a Nobel Prize, the stakes are clearly higher than ever. And in the case of this year's prize for physiology or medicine, given to scientists who played a part in developing magnetic resonance imaging (MRI), the controversy had already been boiling for years.

That's because the claim of “inventing” MRI has long been the subject of a dispute, largely centering around two US researchers—Paul C. Lauterbur, who jointly won the 2003 prize, and Raymond Damadian, who did not.

The debate over these two men's place in history has been a regular topic of discussion at scientific meetings. A year ago, the Wall Street Journal published a...

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