Ian Donald, emeritus regius professor of midwifery at the University of Glasgow, was one of the most eminent obstetricians of his time. He pioneered the diagnostic use of ultrasound in obstetrics and gynaecology which made possible the detection of abnormalities in the earliest stages of pregnancy, a technique which is now used routinely not only in obstetrics but also in many other specialties.
Ian was born in Liskeard, Cornwall, the son of John Donald, a general practitioner, and his wife Helen Barrow, née Wilson. His father’s practice was in Paisley, Scotland, and Ian’s early education was first at Warriston School, Moffat, and then at Fettes College, Edinburgh. When he was 14 years old his father moved to Cape Town, South Africa, for health reasons, and Ian continued his education at the Diocesan College in Rondebosch, subsequently obtaining a BA from the University of Cape Town. After the death of his parents he returned to the United Kingdom and in 1937 graduated in medicine from the University of London. He served in the RAF as a medical officer from 1942-46, being awarded the MBE and mentioned in despatches for his bravery in saving several airmen from a crashed blazing aircraft.
After the war he entered St Thomas’s Hospital. It was Joe Wrigley who inspired him to specialize in obstetrics and gynaecology and Ian became a reader in the subject at St Thomas’s. In 1952 he moved to take up a similar position at the Hammersmith Hospital, now the Royal Postgraduate, where he first showed his talent for applying his electronic expertise to medicine when he developed a respirator triggered by the feeble respiratory efforts of the infant. His early researches were concerned with respiratory disorders in the newborn child, and his Blair Bell lecture at the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists in 1954 was on this subject.
Donald’s interest in ultrasound diagnosis began when he was at the Hammersmith but it was his appointment, in 1954, to the Regius chair of midwifery at Glasgow which enabled him to develop his ideas. Glasgow had the engineering expertise he needed and he had the help of a brilliant engineer, Tom Brown, and the Scottish electronics company Kelvin Hughes. But there can be no doubt that it was Ian’s own inspired approach to research that provided the driving force behind the creation of the first contact compound sector scanner. Donald’s celebrated paper on the subject, with T G Brown and J MacVicar, appeared in the Lancet, 1958, 1, p. 1188. The early images were of very poor quality and at that time many saw no future in the new technique. Only a man of Ian’s obsessive drive and vision could have seen the project to its successful conclusion. For the diagnoses did come: first pelvic tumours, next hydatid moles and, following the development of the full-bladder technique, the growth of the foetus in the first trimester of pregnancy. This was soon followed by early diagnosis of multiple pregnancy, measurement of the foetal biparietal diameter, and placental location.
Donald’s initial work on ultrasound was at the Royal Maternity Hospital in Glasgow, but within 10 years he had campaigned for and helped to design the splendid new Queen Mother’s Hospital at Yorkhill. He moved there in 1964 and the hospital became a centre for visitors from all over the world to study ultrasound diagnosis. Donald built up a strong team of many young researchers and allowed them great freedom to pursue their ideas, which resulted in making many advances. Ian Donald was a man without a trace of envy and he was always generous to his American rivals who had by this time built their own copy of his contact scanner. But until the development of the real-time scanner in the 1970s, Donald's ‘Diasonograph’ was the world’s best and his team in Glasgow were always one step ahead of the competition.
Ian was a great teacher and a forceful lecturer. He always said that the basis of good teaching was enthusiasm, of which he himself possessed an abundance. His book Practical obstetric problems, London, Lloyd-Luke, 1955, was a bestseller and gives an idea of his unique didactic style. It was often recommended as bedtime reading, and his entertaining style made even the dull aspects of his subject interesting and absorbing.
Ian Donald held very strong views on the sanctity of life and vigorously opposed the 1967 Abortion Act, which earned him almost more media publicity than his scientific contributions had done. One might disagree with him, but none challenged the integrity of his views. He was a passionate believer in life and was horrified that obstetricians should be called on to destroy it, the very antithesis of their true calling.
He received many honours, including the Blair gold medal, the Eardley Holland gold medal, the Victor Bonney prize and the Maternity prize of the European Association of Perinatal Medicine. He was elected a Fellow of the College in 1987.
Shortly after receiving his fellowship of the RCP, he attended the fellowship admission ceremony of the RCOG to see his friend and colleague, Eric Saling, receive the fellowship ad eundem. It was fitting that his last public appearance should be with his wife at his own College.
Ian had married Alix Richards of Bloemfontein in 1937. It was a very happy marriage and they had four daughters of whom he was very proud. His happy family life was a valuable source of strength because for some 30 years he had to fight a continuing battle with ill health, undergoing major cardiac surgery on three occasions.
Ian was not only a man of indomitable spirit, he also had many talents: an accomplished pianist, a competent watercolour artist, and an enthusiastic yachtsman, as well as being a pioneer in his own field.
He was survived by his wife and their four daughters.
Sir Gordon Wolstenholme
[Brit.med.J., 1987,295,126; Lancet, 1987,2,168; The Times, 20 June 1987; Trans. Coll. Med (SA), July-Dec 1987,31,No.2,146]