Remembering Past Greats: Ian Donald

Author Information

Prasad M*, Venkatesh S **.
(* Assistant Professor, ** Professor and Head of Department, Department of Obstetrics and Gynecology, Vydehi Institute of Medical Sciences and Research Centre, Whitefield, Bangalore, India.)

Almost every contemporary student of obstetrics may have come across the textbook of Obstetrics authored by Professor Ian Donald. His eminence as an obstetrician- gynecologist, and excellence as a prolific writer, made his book run popularly for many years as a standard book in the subject.
However, the jewel of his professional achievements was the popularization of ultrasonography in obstetrics and gynecology, a modality which has now become a part and parcel of this medical field.
Ian Donald was born in Scotland on 27th December 1910, in a family of four siblings. His father being a medical doctor instilled an interest in the profession, and his mother being a musician (playing the piano) instilled precision and creativity in him.[1] 
He lived briefly in South Africa where he received higher school education. In the 1930’s, he completed medical education from St Thomas’ Hospital, London and chose to do residency in obstetrics. He served the Royal Air Force in 1942 and 1943 as a medical officer. During this time, he had a lot of interaction with air force officers who were using the Radar technology for combat operations and remote-viewing of the enemy. This probably laid the foundation for his keen interest in imaging.  Briefly during the world war, he developed a deep interest in psychiatry owing to close contact with suffering soldiers. He was decorated with a gallantry award for risking his life to enter a plane with live bombs to rescue trapped co-flyers. However, once the war was over, he was getting financially rewarding positions only in the subject he had formal training; Obstetrics and gynecology. Soon, he joined the same institution where he had received his training.[2]
He observed a lot of premature births and respiratory distress syndromes, for which he devised an artificial respirator. This was developed by him and his wife, and it was quickly replicated in many places. This gave him financial rewards and earned recognition as a creative clinician.[3]
In 1954, he was inspired by a lecture on the use of sonography in neurological and cancer diagnosis being delivered by Professor John Wild. Soon, when he was appointed as Regius Professor of Midwifery in Glasgow University, he put his ideas to test. For his path-breaking ideas, including the use of ultrasound he had earned quite a reputation, and was even nicknamed “Mad Donald”.
For many years starting from 1954 to 1970s, he came up with progressively improving concepts in imaging of the pelvis.[4] The introduction of the fetal sonogram was indeed revolutionary for that time. He single-handedly demonstrated the usefulness in estimating the growth of the fetus in-utero, and this finding was widely hailed and accepted by almost all obstetricians all over the world. The use of this technique also heralded the ovarian follicular monitoring, a cornerstone in infertility management. With his junior contemporaries like Asim Kurjak, he went on to set up the Donald School of obstetric radiology, which continues to educate clinicians in the subject.
Ian Donald’s contribution to the field of obstetrics and gynecology is exemplary. His life inspires us to be creative and demonstrates that a single idea can positively revolutionize the way a clinical specialty is dealt with.

  1. Biographies. In O’Dowd MJ, Philipp EE, editors. The History of Obstetrics and Gynecology. 1st ed. Lancs: Parthenon Publishing Group 2000; pp. 644
  2. Woo J. A short History of the development of Ultrasound in Obstetrics and Gynecology.
  3. Ian Donald. The University of Glasgow Story.
  4. Ian Donald (1910–1987). The Embryo Project Encyclopedia.

Prasad M, Venkatesh S. Remembering Past Greats: Ian Donald. JPGO 2019. Volume 6 No.2. Available from: