Intended for healthcare professionals


John MacVicar

BMJ 2011; 342 doi: (Published 15 June 2011) Cite this as: BMJ 2011;342:d3752
  1. James Owen Drife
  1. J.O.Drife{at}

Pioneer of medical ultrasound and clinical educator

The science of diagnostic ultrasound began with a landmark paper published in the Lancet on 7 June 1958 (1958;271:1188-95, doi:10.1016/S0140-6736(58)91905-6). Its authors, Donald, MacVicar, and Brown, were three very different characters. Ian Donald, Regius professor of midwifery at the University of Glasgow, was forceful, aristocratic, and, some thought, slightly crazy. John MacVicar, his registrar, was intelligent, practical, and devoted to duty. Tom Brown was a brilliant young engineer not long out of apprenticeship who had heard that Donald was trying to use ultrasound on human beings, and phoned up offering to help.

Ultrasound, called ASDIC, had been used during the second world war to detect submarines. By the 1950s, renamed sonar, it was being applied in the Clydeside shipbuilding industry and elsewhere to identify flaws in metal. Donald, who had arrived in Glasgow in 1954, was fascinated by technology and had the idea that sonar could be adapted to detect flaws in the human body. His first attempts had failed for technical reasons that were obvious to Brown, who changed the Heath Robinson apparatus into something that stood a chance of success.

Birth of a science

John MacVicar’s role was to undertake what today would be called the clinical trials. This meant experimenting …

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