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Ultrasound imaging

January 23, 2001

A public radio commentary

I found, this morning, in my e-mail inbox an amazing image: A friend had sent an ultrasonic image of her developing baby. Today we usually associate ultrasound with the joyous event of birth, but this magnificent technology came about because of the horrors of World War Two - and because of a London surgeon named John Wild.

He operated on civilians with internal injuries from German Vee one rockets. After hundreds of operation Wild realized that to increase the survival rate he needed to know how the intestines were healing; he needed to see whether the wall thickness was increasing or decreasing. The only way he could do it was to operate again, which was very risky.

After the war he moved to Minnesota and devoted his full attention to figuring out how to see inside the human body. He'd heard of pulse-echo equipment used in the war to detect cracks in armor plate - it worked like a bat's sonar - but he couldn't adapt this equipment because the cracks were much smaller than an intestine wall. He asked the equipment's maker to estimate the cost of a custom unit with the appropriate resolution for medical use. Their answer: one hundred thousand dollars - a very steep price in the late 1940s - and way too much for just testing the idea. But John Wild persevered. He searched until he found a physicists who'd developed an ultrasound device used to train airborne navigators to recognize radar images.

The machine "flew" over a small relief map detecting the tiny ups and downs of hills and then reproduced them on a radar screen. These ups and downs on the map were just the right size for imaging inside a human body. After the war this piece of equipment lay idol at a nearby Naval Base in Minneapolis. Wild talked its owners into letting him use it.

His goal was just to test the idea, so he brought over a dog's small intestine to image. The result was good enough that Wild could move forward with building his own equipment. Unable to test his new ultrasound machine on a person he instead peered inside a pie. His wife had some fresh steak & kidney pies in the frig, so Wild borrowed a slice and examined the inside of the pie without cutting it open. As he played with his ultrasound machine he realized by 1949 that he could use it to detect cancer - a completely novel idea at the time.

So, by 1951 he used his ultrasonic technique to examine real patients, focusing on detecting colon and breast cancer. Today John Wild's imaging is used in thousands of ways, to save hundreds of thousands of lives. And its promise isn't yet completely fulfilled. Researchers are now starting to study ultrasonic images of the flow of blood in our brains. Their goal: To understand how we think.

Copyright 2001 William S. Hammack Enterprises