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Donald, Ian (1910–1987), obstetrician and developer of ultrasound, was born on 27 December 1910 in Liskeard, Cornwall, the eldest in the family of two surviving sons and two daughters of John Donald (d. 1927), medical practitioner, and his wife, Helen Barrow, née Wilson (d. 1927), concert pianist; his sister Alison later became high mistress of St Paul's Girls' School, London [see ]. His education was at Warriston School, Moffat, Dumfriesshire, and Fettes College, Edinburgh, and then in South Africa at the Diocesan College, Rondebosch, Cape Town, and Cape Town University (where he obtained a BA in French, Greek, English, and music). On his return to England he entered St Thomas's Hospital medical school, London, from which he graduated MB BS in 1937. In 1937 he married Alix Mathilde, daughter of Walter Wellesley de Chazal Richards, a farmer in the Orange Free State, South Africa. Happily married for fifty years, he was the loving father of four daughters and was devoted to his women patients, as they were to him.

Donald served in the Royal Air Force medical branch from 1942 to 1946 and was mentioned in dispatches and appointed MBE (military, 1946) for acts of gallantry. He returned to St Thomas's Hospital and qualified MD and MRCOG in 1947 (FRCOG, 1955). In 1952 he became reader at Hammersmith Hospital, London, where he devised a respirator for the resuscitation of the new-born. In 1954 he was appointed to the regius chair of midwifery at the University of Glasgow. The first edition of his eminently readable textbook, Practical Obstetric Problems, was published in 1955. It reflected his motto, ‘the art of teaching is the art of sharing enthusiasm’, his sparkling wit, and his deep knowledge of English literature and the Bible.

Familiar with radar and sonar from his Royal Air Force days, and with the pioneering work in Minnesota of the British-born experimenter John Wild, Donald's mind turned to the idea that sonar could be used for medical diagnosis. With T. G. Brown of the electronics company Kelvin Hughes he produced the first successful diagnostic ultrasound machine for use in obstetrics, and with Dr John MacVicar the findings were reported in The Lancet of 7 June 1958 under the title ‘Investigation of abdominal masses by pulsed ultrasound’. The idea of applying the principles of metal flaw detection to human diagnosis was received at first with scepticism and some hilarity, but Donald's vision of ultrasound as a new diagnostic science never faded and work with various colleagues followed, exploring the whole subject of foetal development. The impact of ultrasound on obstetric practice has been enormous and in later life Donald wrote: ‘the innumerable difficulties, set-backs and disappointments have been more than compensated for by those who have turned the subject from a laughable eccentricity into a science of increasing exactitude.’

In 1964 the department moved from the Glasgow Royal Maternity Hospital to a new hospital (the Queen Mother's Hospital), for which Donald had campaigned and which he helped to design. There he directed everything with verve and panache, like a great actor–manager of the old school. He was an impressive figure as he strode its corridors, 6 feet 2 inches tall with red hair and blue eyes, and having a strong personal magnetism. He was impulsive, witty, and quick-tempered, but his sudden anger evaporated almost instantly. He had a great sense of fun and at the most solemn occasions could dissolve into helpless laughter. His hobbies were sailing (in which he persisted despite a cardiac condition), piano playing (Chopin was his favourite composer), and landscape painting in watercolour—all of which were pursued with characteristic enthusiasm.

Donald was appointed CBE in 1973 and received the order of the Yugoslav Flag with gold star in 1982. He received honorary DSc degrees from London (1981) and Glasgow (1983), the Eardley Holland gold medal (1970), Blair Bell gold medal (1970), Victor Bonney prize (1970–72), and MacKenzie Davidson medal (1975). Other distinctions included FCOG (South Africa) (1967), honorary FACOG (1976), honorary FRCOG (1982), and honorary FRCP (Glasgow) (1984). From 1961 he was hampered by ill health, but he continued to be active despite having three major heart operations. He showed enormous courage throughout and was greatly sustained by his profound Christian faith. His opposition to the Abortion Act of 1967 and its consequences stemmed from a deep respect for human life. He was opposed to experiments on embryos. His last research effort, pursued in retirement, was an attempt to achieve a perfect method of natural family planning using a device to warn the woman of the approach of ovulation. He died at his home in Paglesham, Essex, on 19 June 1987 and was buried in St Peter's churchyard there. He was survived by his wife and four daughters.

James Willocks, rev.


The Times (20 June 1987) · BMJ (11 July 1987), 126 · The Lancet (18 July 1987) · J. Willocks, ‘Ian Donald and the birth of obstetric ultrasound’, Obstetric ultrasound, ed. J. P. Neilson and S. E. Chambers, 1 (1993), 1–18 · J. Willocks, ‘Medical ultrasound: a Glasgow development which swept the world’, Avenue, 19 (1996), 5–7 · College Courant, 28/57 (1976) · J. Willocks, Ian Donald memorial lecture, British Medical Ultrasound Society (BMUS) conference, Glasgow, 1988, BMUS collection [audiotape; no script available] · J. Willocks, address, Ian Donald memorial service, 28 Oct 1987 · E. M. Tansey and others, eds., Looking at the unborn: historical aspects of obstetric ultrasound (2000), vol. 5 of Wellcome Witnesses to Twentieth-Century Medicine · WWW · personal knowledge (1996) · private information (1996) [Alix Donald, wife]


BMUS collection |  American Institute for Ultrasound in Medicine, 14750 Sweitzer Lane, Laurel, Maryland, MD 20707–5906  



BMUS collection




BMUS collection


3 photographs, 1955, repro. in J. P. Neilson and S. E. Chambers, eds., Obstetric ultrasound, 1 (1993), 2, 12, 15 · photograph, 1980 (scanning daughter and unborn grandchild), repro. in Avenue (Jan 1996), 5 · BMUS collection · priv. coll.