Ultrasound Scanner (60th Anniversary)

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

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Photo of Kenneth Gibson Kenneth Gibson Scottish National Party

I congratulate my colleague Angela Constance on securing the debate, because I am always grateful for the opportunity to celebrate Scotland’s proud history of invention and innovation. Ultrasound really is something to celebrate. I, too, welcome our distinguished guests to the gallery.

For many women, it would be hard to imagine going through a pregnancy without seeing that first memorable glimpse of their baby, as Angela Constance highlighted earlier.

An ultrasound scan is a pregnancy milestone for many women, and is a special moment that can be shared with loved ones. However, as Angela Constance’s motion highlights, the iconic black-and-white images of the developing foetus are a relatively recent invention. Just 60 years ago, pregnancy screening was a very different experience.

Prior to the obstetric ultrasound scanner, doctors had only a stethoscope or, in the case of Dr Stevenson, a wooden horn, to assess a pregnancy and to listen to a baby’s heart. A tape was used to measure fundal height and to check that the baby was growing, which provided a very limited idea of what was going on inside the womb, and gave no information on foetal anatomy, placenta location or anomalies, accurate foetal measurement or foetal wellbeing. It did not provide many more details that we take for granted with modern medicine.

It is often difficult to know when some developments in medicine began, because projects evolve in tandem and they intersect, but with ultrasound in obstetrics and gynaecology there is no such doubt. It had a very definite beginning. All developments of ultrasound diagnosis—or sonography—in obstetrics and gynaecology date from the breakthrough in publication of the seminal research paper by Ian Donald, John MacVicar, and Tom Brown, “The investigation of abdominal masses by pulsed ultrasound”, in 1958. Angela Constance’s motion refers to the contribution of the late Professor Ian Donald to the publication; it is right that his legacy is being celebrated here today. Described in his time as a “tall, charismatic redhead”, Professor Donald was regarded as a generous and principled man who worked tirelessly to achieve his goals. Some medical historians credited his work ethic to his severe rheumatic heart disease, which made every moment precious to him.

Armed with some knowledge of radar technology, which he learned in the Royal Air Force, Donald began working with his fellow Glasgow obstetrician, Dr John MacVicar, and engineers Tom Brown and John Fleming. With help from Kelvin Hughes, which is a Glasgow engineering firm, they developed the world’s first contact compound two-dimensional ultrasound scanning machine, which was called the dinosaurograph—or, perhaps, the Diasonograph, as Angela Constance called it. We will have to discuss that later, but I am convinced that “dinosaurograph” sounds right.

At the heart of the ground-breaking collaboration was a young industrial designer from Glasgow called Dugald Cameron, who, I am pleased to say, is one of my constituents and is in the gallery today. Professor Cameron first heard of the project when a student in the year below told him about the work that her brother-in-law, Tom Brown, was involved in. The first outline drawings were done while lying on the floor in Tom Brown’s flat and were progressed in the industrial design studio in the east-end basement of the Glasgow School of Art’s Mackintosh building. That first invention bore little resemblance to the technology that we would recognise today. It was eight feet high and occupied as much as one third of the scanning room, so operating the probe required no small physical effort. Perhaps unkindly deemed the “dinosaurograph” by some colleagues, the early machine undoubtedly laid the groundwork for many new and improved versions.

In Professor Cameron’s words,

“This particular technology is used internationally”.

He quite rightly encourages us all to take pride in the contribution that Glasgow and Scotland have made to the lives of the 8.7 million people in the UK alone who benefit from the technology each year. We heard from David Stewart and Miles Briggs about the myriad uses of ultrasound, other than in pregnancy. We must also mention its undoubted global impact.

I echo Angela Constance’s call to our museums and educational institutions to recognise the importance of not only the obstetric ultrasound scanner, but of all Scotland’s rich heritage of design, invention and innovation. No doubt, Donald, Brown, MacVicar, Cameron and Fleming were influenced by the spirit of the Scottish enlightenment, which is the basis of our broad general education system that is committed to excellence and quality. Scotland’s great contribution to medicine and science should never be forgotten. I hope that by teaching young people about the achievements of their predecessors, they will be inspired to push towards the next great innovation, whatever it might be.