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Ultrasound pioneer John Wild

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Many parents are familiar with his work.
Image: The Tinker family

A Briton trained in surgery at University of Cambridge [and at University College Hospital, London, Ed.], John J. Wild became interested in peering inside bodies when he was called on to treat victims of V-1 bombs during World War II. The bomb's shockwave produced distended bowels in victims that could be fatal if not treated, and Dr. Wild realized he needed a tool that could measure the thickness of the bowel wall.

Continuing his research after the war, Dr. Wild moved to the University of Minnesota, where he worked at first with a machine designed to find stress fractures in tank armor and then with a radar simulator at the Great Lakes Naval Training Station in Minneapolis. Working at first in his own basement, he constructed some of the first echoscopes, as he termed the early devices.

At the time, it wasn't known whether sound waves could cause harm, so Dr. Wild at first aimed his echoscope at a cow kidney his wife had intended to turn into steak and kidney pie. This produced, he later wrote, "the first direct image of soft tissue, and in real time."

The echoscope's first public diagnostic triumph took place on May 22, 1953, when at a demonstration before the Minnesota State Medical Association, a breast tumor was diagnosed.

"The tumor was revealed in positive contrast" in photos, Dr. Wild wrote in a memoir. It was "shining like a planet in the night sky. It could not be missed."

Wild had realized, of course, that he could project "the information drawn from the sound beam sweeping through soft tissue on to a fluorescent television screen". His landmark papers soon convinced the skeptical medical establishment that healthy and malignant tissues produced different 'echoes'.

"A tinkerer from childhood" - he ran his motorcycle on charcoal when fuel was short during the Second World War - Wild changed the landscape of medicine.

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