New Book: Imaging and Imagining the Fetus: The Development of Obstetric Ultrasound

Published: 12 March 2013

The story of the development of obstetric ultrasound in Glasgow, from the earliest experiments with industrial flaw detectors to the diffusion of the technology throughout the British hospital system and beyond, and the impact that ultrasound imaging had on the concepts of the fetus, both clinically and culturally.

Book Launch, 13 May 2013 

Scotland in Sunday book review

In their new book published January 2013, Malcolm Nicolson and John Fleming relate the technical and social history of obstetric ultrasound imaging—from early experiments in Glasgow inin the British hospital system byuse in maternity clinics throughout the developed world by the end of the twentieth century. Obstetrician Ian Donald and engineer Tom Brown created the first unequivocally clinically useful diagnostic ultrasound technology in Glasgow, where their prototypes were based on the industrial flaw detector, an instrument readily available to them in the shipbuilding city. As a physician, Donald prosletyised for ultrasound for clinical purposes, and as a devout High Anglican he imbued the images with moral significance. He opposed abortion—decisions about which were increasingly guided by the ultrasound technology he pioneered—and he occasionally used ultrasound images to convince pregnant women not to abort the fetuses they could now see.

Imaging and Imagining the Fetus explores why Donald and Brown succeeded when earlier innovators had failed.  It also shows how ultrasound developed into a "black box" technology whose users can fully appreciate the images they produce but do not, and have no need to, understand the technology, any more than do users of computers. These "images of the fetus may be produced by machines," the authors write, "but they live vividly in the human imagination."

To its proponents, the ultrasound scanner is a safe, reliable, and indispensable aid to diagnosis. Its detractors, on the other hand, argue that its development and use are driven by the technological enthusiasms of doctors and engineers (and the commercial interests of manufacturers) and not by concern to improve the clinical care of women. In some U.S. states, an ultrasound scan is now required by legislation before a woman can obtain an abortion, adding a new dimension to an already controversial practice. Imaging and Imagining the Fetus engages both the development of a modern medical technology and the concerted critique of that technology.

For more details, visit the publisher's webpage.

First published: 12 March 2013

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