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Imaging the fetus – the history of obstetric ultrasound

8th May 2013


To mark one of the most important medical developments to come out of the University of Glasgow in the twentieth century, a new book has been published.
Imaging & imagining the fetus charts the development of obstetric ultrasound, both in terms of the technical and social history of ultrasound imaging – from early experiments in Glasgow in 1956 to its ubiquitous use in maternity clinics throughout the developed world by the end of the twentieth century.


Obstetrician Ian Donald and engineer Tom Brown created ultrasound technology in Glasgow, where their prototypes were based on the industrial flaw detector, an instrument readily available to them in the shipbuilding city. As a physician, Donald supported the use of ultrasound for clinical purposes, and as a devout High Anglican placed moral significance on the images. He opposed abortion—decisions about which were increasingly guided by the ultrasound technology he pioneered—and he occasionally used ultrasound images to convince pregnant women not to abort the fetuses they could now see.


To date, its supporters believe the ultrasound scanner is a safe, reliable, and indispensable aid to diagnosis. Its detractors, on the other hand, argue that its development and use are driven by the technological enthusiasms of doctors and engineers (and the commercial interests of manufacturers) and not by concern to improve the clinical care of women. In some U.S. states, an ultrasound scan is now required by legislation before a woman can obtain an abortion, adding a new dimension to an already controversial practice. Imaging and Imagining the Fetus  engages both the development of a modern medical technology and the concerted critique of that technology.


Professor Malcolm Nicolson, Professor of the History of Medicine and Director of the Centre for the History of Medicine, University of Glasgow said “The invention of diagnostic has profoundly affected  the care of pregnant women.  Imaging has also given the fetus a clinical and social presence.  It has been a privilege to trace the development of the technology by means of the excellent archives and testimonies available in Glasgow.





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