MEDICAL HISTORY PAGE
Year : 2014 | Volume
: 5 | Issue : 1 | Page : 83--84
Ian Donald-pioneer of obstetric ultrasound
Department of Obstetrics & Gynecology, Father Muller Medical College, Mangalore, Karnataka, India
Department of Obstetrics & Gynecology, Father Muller Medical College, Mangalore, Karnataka
The ultrasound has become quite commonplace in Obstetrics and Gynaecology.Its advent is however of fairly recent origin. It was pioneered in the late 1950s but has seen a meteoric rise to become the most important discovery of the twentieth century. It was the vision, eloquence and persistence of one man from Glasgow that saw its birth and widespread use. The man was Professor Ian Donald. This is his story, his dream.
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D'Cunha P. Ian Donald-pioneer of obstetric ultrasound.Muller J Med Sci Res 2014;5:83-84
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D'Cunha P. Ian Donald-pioneer of obstetric ultrasound. Muller J Med Sci Res [serial online] 2014 [cited 2021 Dec 2 ];5:83-84
Available from: https://www.mjmsr.net/text.asp?2014/5/1/83/128962
For thee…to whom
No sound is dissonant which tells of Life.
The ultrasound has become quite commonplace in obstetrics and gynecology. Its advent is however of fairly recent origin. It was pioneered in the late 1950s but has seen a meteoric rise to become the most important discovery of the 20 th century. It was the vision, eloquence and persistence of one man from Glasgow that saw its birth and widespread use. The man was Professor Ian Donald. This is his story, his dream.
Ian Donald was born on 27 th December 1910 in Cornwall. He was the third generation of doctors in his family. His early studies were in England and Edinburgh. At age 14 years his family migrated to South Africa. There he attained a degree in Arts and Music from the University of Cape Town in 1931. He obtained his medical degree from St. Thomas Medical School, London in 1937.
It was while he was contemplating a career in psychiatry, the Second World War broke out. Donald joined the RAF in their medical wing. This move would have far reaching effects. It was here that he developed a keen interest in sonar (the navy was using it to detect submarines). He was discharged with honors having received the military cross for gallantry when he saved airmen from burning aircraft.
He joined as Reader in Obstetrics and Gynecology in St. Thomas hospital and later at the Hammersmith hospital. Here he worked on a respirator for the newborn. He was chosen as Regius Professor of Midwifery at the University of Glasgow in 1954. He is credited with building of the Queen Mother Hospital in Glasgow which opened in 1964. He was a flamboyant teacher and dedicated doctor. His book "Practical Obstetric Problems" became a bestseller and is a byword even today. It ran into five editions during his lifetime. It reflects also his wit and love for the classics. 
The dedication at the beginning of the book sums up the man he was.
To all who have known doubt, perplexity and fear as I have known them,
To all who have made mistakes as I have,
To all whose humility increases with their knowledge of this most fascinating subject. 
Of Prime Steak, Vaseline and Water Soakage
It was a time in Glasgow when the industrial revolution was happening coupled with medical inquisitiveness that Dr. Ian Donald arrived in. He himself described it as "arrived with the residue of a Leverhulme Research grant from the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists, a rudimentary knowledge of radar from my days in the RAF and a continuing childish interest in machines, electronic and otherwise." At that time ultrasound was used to detect flaws in metals. This set him thinking that this principle could be extended to medical diagnosis. He would load his car with operated specimens of uterine fibroids and ovarian cysts and use as a control a prime steak. A chance meeting with Tom Brown a gifted engineer got him his own flaw detector. Working now on live patients the good doctor tried to get an interphase by using large amounts of Vaseline and balancing carafes of water on the abdomen. This would more often then not end-up in soaking both patient and doctor. Donald described the results as "beyond my wildest expectations. I could see boundless possibilities in the years ahead." 
The breakthrough came when he published his magnum opus "Investigation of abdominal masses by pulsed ultrasound" in the Lancet in 1958.  Donald continued to improve the ultrasound with the development of contact scan (could use a full bladder instead of buckets of water) and into real time scanning. Soon it was possible to look at the fetus and document its progress in utero. He studied about blighting of the ovum, cephalometry and detect the fetal cardiac activity. Ultrasound had opened up a whole new until then undiscovered world. Soon his experience grew in a lot of directions. Notably he was able to diagnose hydatidiform mole, gynecological tumors, ascites and obesity. Despite the lot of skepticism that accompanied him he was rewarded when the University of Glasgow asked him to start his own ultrasound department in 1967. 
Ian Donald has received many awards in his lifetime - the Eardley Holland gold medal; BlairBell Gold Medal, Victor Bonney Prize and the CBE in 1973. He received many doctorates and lectureships from universities all over the world. What is missing however is a deserving Nobel Prize in Medicine. There is an international school of ultrasound in Croatia and now in 33 other countries which bear witness to his name. 
Now 56 years later life without ultrasound is unimaginable. It is the most common diagnostic test. However, in the early days Donald's diasonograph B scanner was ridiculed as dinosaur-o-graph. Time has proved these cynics wrong.
He died in 1987 in retirement, in Essex.
"If you seek his memorial look around you. In every maternity hospital you will see ultrasound in use. A great discovery by a great man."
James Willocks-memorial service in Glasgow. 
This then is the story of a man who achieved his dream - a romantic and a maverick, unconventional and sometimes even farcical who gave the medical world the most exciting machine of all-that which we call ultrasound.
|1||Kurjak A. Ultrasound scanning - Prof. Ian Donald (1910-1987). Eur J Obstet Gynecol Reprod Biol 2000;90:187-9.|
|2||Donald I. Practical Obstetrical Problems. 5 th ed. Singapore: P G Publishing Pte. Ltd.; 1988.|
|3||Donald I, Macvicar J, Brown TG. Investigation of abdominal masses by pulsed ultrasound. Lancet 1958;1:1188-95.|
|4||McNay MB, Fleming JE. Forty years of obstetric ultrasound 1957-1997: From A-scope to three dimensions. Ultrasound Med Biol 1999;25:3-56.|