Ultrasound Scanner (60th Anniversary)

Part of the debate – in the Scottish Parliament on 11th December 2018.

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Photo of Angela Constance Angela Constance Scottish National Party

This year is the 60th anniversary of the publication of a landmark paper that highlighted to the medical world the possibilities of ultrasound. It is my great privilege to lead tonight’s debate, which recognises the importance of that groundbreaking work to Scotland’s heritage in innovation and to the countless millions of people across the globe who have benefited from that advancement in medical technology and which celebrates and pays tribute to the truly remarkable individuals who made it possible.

Tonight, we have more than 20 very special guests in the public gallery, some of whom were directly involved in that work; others are family, friends and supporters of those who are no longer with us. I am very pleased to welcome Professor Dugald Cameron, John Fleming, the family of engineer Tom Brown, who has now retired from public life, and the family and friends of the late Professor Ian Donald. [


.] We also have with us representatives of the University of Glasgow—a centre of medical excellence—and the Glasgow School of Art, which has been at the forefront of design in manufacturing for more than 170 years.

It is a little-known fact that the ultrasound scanner was invented, pioneered and built in Glasgow. The first commercially produced ultrasonic scanner in the world was called the diasonograph and was manufactured by Kelvin & Hughes in Glasgow. The Hunterian museum still has the original prototypes. The first women to benefit from that design and the safe, non-invasive imaging technique were at Glasgow’s Yorkhill hospital in the 1960s. Today, it is entirely routine for pregnant women to receive an ultrasound scan, but we should not forget that ultrasound scanning has been one of the most important developments for the health and wellbeing of women and their babies in the past 50 years or so.

If the Presiding Officer will indulge me for a moment, I have brought to Parliament the first photograph of my son. This scan provided me—then a 37-year-old first-time mother—with much comfort and reassurance in advance of his arrival; a healthy heartbeat and the sight of a little fist raised in defiance were a sign of things to come.

The year 2018 marks the 60th anniversary of the 1958 publication in

The Lancet of the seminal paper by Donald, MacVicar and Brown that paved the way for advancements in the care of pregnant women and a tool for diagnosing a plethora of conditions in men, women and children. That globally significant breakthrough has been used to perform 8.7 million scans annually in the United Kingdom alone, and it took a unique collaboration between experts in clinical obstetrics, engineering, electronics and industrial design. Whose were the minds behind that world-changing invention?

The use of ultrasonics for obstetrics was developed by the late Professor Ian Donald of the University of Glasgow. While serving as a Royal Air Force medical officer in the second world war, he became interested in the possibilities of adapting radar and sonar technology for medical diagnosis. He worked with a talented young engineer—Tom Brown at Kelvin & Hughes—and Dr John MacVicar, a dedicated obstetrician and researcher. The three men published their findings in

The Lancet

, in the 1958 paper entitled “Investigation of Abdominal Masses by Pulsed Ultrasound”. They reported on the first two experimental machines and, unlike earlier attempts, the Glasgow experiments and trials worked well.

I do not think that the achievements of Professor Donald and others have been fully acknowledged. It was Professor Dugald Cameron who brought their untold story to my attention through a chance encounter courtesy of my friend Mike Russell. I am grateful to Professor Cameron, who explained to me the magic of that collaboration, with its interactions and interdependencies.

Professor Ian Donald knew what ultrasound had been used for during the war and was inspired—and, I suspect, driven—to find a way to adapt it for use in obstetrics and gynaecology. Dr John MacVicar, who was then working in a fledgling national health service, knew that women—particularly those from poorer backgrounds—were often given no option but to put up with gynaecological problems for years on end. However, in order to develop the product, the medics needed the technical and creative expertise of the engineers—in particular, Tom Brown, who made it possible. Dugald Cameron, who was then a young design student, worked with Tom Brown on the design aspects. Professor Cameron told me that, otherwise, the machine was going to look like a gun turret, which would have been rather off-putting for expectant mothers. John Fleming did much of the electronic development of the diasonograph.

In the 1960s, the company that made the original machines withdrew the product and the technology went on to be developed elsewhere. Nonetheless, that is still a part of Scotland’s story, and there is much to learn from it. I am, therefore, delighted that the Cabinet Secretary for Culture, Tourism and External Affairs is responding on behalf of the Government tonight. My motion calls for greater encouragement for Scotland’s excellent museums and other institutions to do more to shine a light on the remarkable story of the ultrasound scanner, which is an invention of global significance. I have written to the Victoria and Albert museum and others, but I seek the cabinet secretary’s input on what more can be done to showcase the work as part of our heritage in innovation, invention and industrial design. We should take great pride in that life-changing work and celebrate the achievements of those who made it possible, inspiring our children with the fact that knowledge and ideas from Scotland can be transported all over the world and that their ideas and their knowledge can change the world around them.

The development of ultrasound should not be one of Scotland’s best-kept secrets. Therefore, let the Parliament record that Donald, MacVicar, Brown, Cameron and Fleming—no doubt ably assisted by many others—have, over generations, made a contribution to this country and beyond that can be summed up only as a gift to humanity.