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A Significant Medical History

Today it is a common experience for parents to see a ‘picture’ of their baby before it is born when the mother has a scan. This scan uses ultrasound, a sound with a pitch far above the range we can hear. The first such pictures of unborn babies were produced in Glasgow by Professor Ian Donald and his team in the late 1950s.

The medical use of ultrasound for making pictures of the inside of the body was first suggested in the 1930s. However, it needed advances in Sonar, which is used to detect submarines and shoals of fish, and in electronics before success was possible.

In 1955, Professor Donald’s experiments, at the firm of Babcock and Wilcox in Renfrew, showed that it was possible to probe the human body with ultrasound waves. This was followed by co-operation with Kelvin Hughes (later Smith Industries) in Hillington. The first pictures were published in 1958. Each picture took a few minutes to produce.

The early work in the West of Scotland and elsewhere was followed by tremendous developments. These were achieved by the close co-operation of doctors, engineers, physicists and technicians. We now have scanners which provide highly detailed moving images, showing the flow of blood in the body.

Ultrasound is used today in virtually all hospitals and it is particularly valuable for examining the heart, liver, kidneys, spleen, eye muscles and other ‘soft’ parts of the body.

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Prof Ian Donald, pioneer  of Ultrasound