Hektoen International

A Journal of Medical Humanities

Ian Donald: Ultrasound pioneer

Arpan K. Banerjee
Solihull, England

Ian Donald. Medical Illustration Services, Glasgow Royal Infirmary. Via Wikimedia. Fair use.

Ian Donald was born in Liskeard, Cornwall, UK in 1910 of Scottish ancestry. His father was a general practitioner. He was educated in Scotland at Fettes College and spent a brief period in South Africa from 1925 to 1930, where he studied for a BA degree in Cape Town, before entering St. Thomas’s Hospital Medical School, London where he qualified as a doctor in 1937. That year he married Alix Richards and started work as a house physician in the department of obstetrics at St. Thomas’s Hospital. During World War II, he served as a medical officer in the Royal Air Force. Seeing radar and sonar in use during the war led to his interest in using technology for medical diagnosis.

He was awarded a military MBE in 1946, having been mentioned in dispatches. In 1951, he became a reader in obstetrics at St. Thomas’s Hospital and moved to the Hammersmith Hospital (The Royal Postgraduate Medical School, London) a year later as a reader. His research interest at that time was neonatal respiration, and in 1954, he gave the Blair Bell Memorial Lecture on this topic. That same year, he was appointed the Regius Chair of Midwifery in Glasgow, Scotland, and went on to write the first edition of his book Practical Obstetrical Problems (now in its ninth edition). In 1956, Dr. John MacVicar joined the team. Donald enjoyed a fruitful collaboration with MacVicar along with Tom Brown, the engineer from the company Kelvin and Hughes. In 1958, Donald and Brown built the first ultrasound machine.

Donald started using the Mark 4 detectors initially for analyzing metals. He then turned to using the prototype scanner on humans, resulting in the classic paper in the June 7, 1958 Lancet titled “Investigation of abdominal masses by pulsed ultrasound,” co-written with Brown and MacVicar. Although it was initially met with some skepticism, this paper revolutionized medical practice. MacVicar later became the founding professor of obstetrics and gynecology at Leicester Medical School, UK.

The first sale of the scanner the “Diasonograph” built by Fleming and Brown for Kelvin and Hughes (later known as Smiths Industries) was to Sweden.

Throughout the 1960s and in subsequent decades, scanners improved and people realized their value in diagnosing abdominal and pelvic conditions, in obstetrics, and in other areas such as the vascular system. Today, with the latest advances, ultrasound plays an important role in medical diagnosis and is used worldwide. The lack of radiation means it is a safer diagnostic tool and ideally placed in both hospitals and community settings.

Donald was showered with honors and awards, including the Eardley Holland Gold Medal of the Royal College of Obstetrics and Gynaecology in 1970, and the Victor Bonney Prize from the Royal College of Surgeons of London that same year. He was made an Honorary DSC from London University in 1981 and Glasgow in 1983. In 1982, he was made an Honorary Fellow of the Royal College of Obstetrics and Gynaecology. In 1984, both he and Tom Brown were made Honorary Fellows of the British Medical Ultrasound Society.

Donald died in 1987 in Paglesham, Essex, UK. Today the International Society of Ultrasound in Obstetrics and Gynaecology annually awards The Ian Donald Gold Medal in his honor.


  • Donald I, MacVicar J, Brown T. “Investigation of Abdominal Masses by Pulsed Ultrasound,” Lancet 1958;1(7032):1188-94.
  • Banerjee AK. “Ian Donald and the History of Ultrasound” (lecture). Proceedings of 29th International Congress of Radiology, Sept 2016, Buenos Aires, Argentina.
  • Thomas AMK, Banerjee AK. The History of Radiology, Oxford University Press, 2013.
  • Thomas AMK, Banerjee AK, Busch U. Classic Papers in Modern Diagnostic Radiology, Springer, 2005.
  • McNay MB and Fleming JEE. “40 Years of Obstetric Ultrasound 1957-1997: from A-scope to Three Dimensions.” Ultrasound in Med. & Biol., 1999;25(1):3-56.
  • Kurjak A. “Ultrasound scanning – Prof. Ian Donald (1910-1987).” Eur J Obstet Gynecol Reprod Biol. 2000;90(2):187-9.

DR. ARPAN K. BANERJEE qualified in medicine at St Thomas’s Hospital Medical School. London. He was a consultant radiologist in Birmingham 1995–2019. He was President of the radiology section of the RSM 2005–2007 and on the scientific committee of the Royal College of Radiologists 2012–2016. He was Chairman of the British Society for the History of Radiology 2012–2017. He is Chairman of ISHRAD. He is author/co-author of papers on a variety of clinical, radiological, and medical historical topics and seven books, including Classic Papers in Modern Diagnostic Radiology (2005) and The History of Radiology (OUP 2013).

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