Obstetrician Ian Donald helped develop the first successful diagnostic ultrasound machine in the 1950s. His innovation—applying sonar techniques to diagnosis—was initially greeted with skepticism, but eventually adopted and adapted for widespread use. Brown also invented a respirator for newborn infants, and in his later years worked to develop a birth-control device that would predict ovulation.
Donald was born in Liskeard, Cornwall, England, on December 27, 1910, the eldest of four children. His father, John Donald, was a doctor, and his mother, Helen Wilson Donald, a concert pianist. Donald attended Fettes College in Edinburgh, then went to South Africa, where he studied at the Diocesan College in Rondebosch, and later at Capetown University. There he obtained a B.A. in French, Greek, English, and music. Upon his return to England, he enrolled at St. Thomas's Hospital Medical School, earning his M.B. (bachelor of medicine) and B.S. in 1937. In the same year he married Alix Richards, with whom he eventually had four daughters.
During World War II, Donald served in the Royal Air Force, and after four years of service in 1946, was named Member of the British Empire. In 1947 he received his M.D. from St. Thomas's. Five years later, he became an instructor at Hammersmith Hospital, where he developed a device for resuscitating newborn infants with respiratory problems. He was appointed to the regius chair (a chair endowed by the British Crown) of midwifery at the University of Glasgow in 1954. The following year he published the textbook Practical Obstetric Problems.
Donald's search for an instrument that would help diagnose problems in unborn children was aided by his wartime experience with radar and sonar. With help from T. G. Brown of Kelvin Hughes, an electronics corporation, he created the world's first ultrasound machine. In 1958 Donald and John MacVicar published their findings in the Lancet. At first the idea of using sonar for diagnosis was greeted skeptically by the medical community. Over the course of his career, however, Donald saw his device—which underwent considerable development over time—gain wide acceptance.
Donald began to suffer from ill health in 1961, but he continued to work for several years. His department moved from Glasgow Royal Maternity Hospital in 1964 to the new Queen Mother's Hospital, which he helped design. A devout Christian, he was an outspoken opponent of the Abortion Act of 1967, and also opposed experiments on embryos. In the 1970s and 1980s he received a number of honors, including the Eardley Holland gold medal (1970), the Blair Bell gold medal (1970), Commander of the Order of the British Empire, (1973), the Order of the Yugoslav Flag (1982), and many others.
During his later years, Donald worked on a birth-control method that would alert women when they were approaching ovulation. Plagued by heart problems, he underwent three major operations, and died at his home in Paglesham, Essex, on June 19, 1987.