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Ian Donald (1910-87)

Ian Donald was a British obstetrician who pioneered ultrasound for medical diagnosis.

Donald began medical school at St Thomas’s Hospital in London in 1937. His studies were interrupted by the Second World War, during which he served with distinction in the Royal Air Force medical branch. After the war, Donald returned to St Thomas’s. He qualified as an obstetrician in 1947. In 1954 he was appointed to the Regius chair of midwifery at the University of Glasgow.

As a child, Donald was fascinated by machines and electronics. He became familiar with radar and sonar during the war, and in Glasgow investigated using sonar for medical diagnosis. At the time, ultrasound was mainly used for detecting flaws in metal. In 1955, Donald visited a boiler-making company that was using the technique. He took a collection of tumours and lumps and scanned them with ultrasound. Soft-tissue tumours beneath the skin were difficult to find using X‑rays.

In 1958, Donald and an engineer called Tom Brown built the first successful ultrasound diagnostic machine. Donald’s idea of using ultrasound to diagnose humans was ridiculed. However, after a large ovarian cyst was diagnosed in a female patient, practitioners took the technology seriously. Alice Stewart’s research demonstrated X‑rays during pregnancy were dangerous to the foetus, which also led to ultrasound being accepted as a safer imaging technology.

Donald pioneered using ultrasound to measure foetal development. He later became known for opposing abortion and experiments on embryos. He campaigned against the 1967 Abortion Act, which he saw as an ‘attempt to eliminate an evil by substituting a different evil’.