a brief history of ultrasound

Ultrasound finds its roots in Sonar or Sound Navigation and Ranging, and can be thought of as a form of medical sonar. It is written, that as early as the mid 1820’s a Swiss physicist by the name of Daniel Colladon, was using a bell underwater to decipher the speed of sound in water. His experiments helped lead the way to defining the basic physics of sound waves, transmission, reception, and refraction. Following breakthrough discoveries of high frequency echo-sounding techniques the piezo-electric effect was discovered by the Curie brothers in France in 1880. This discovery made it possible for the emission and reception of ultrasonic waves or ultrasound. These developments enabled echo sounding devices to measure depth which became integral tools in navigating the ocean and were quickly employed in ships and submarines just months following the 1912 sinking of the Titanic.

Soon after the evolution and use of sound waves to measure depth, British scientists in 1924 began looking skyward -using radio waves to determine the height of the ionosphere. RADAR or Radio Detection and Ranging are how we now know this process.

In 1953 at the University of Colorado Jerome Gersten was reportedly using ultrasonics as a therapy for such ailments as gastric ulcers and arthritis rather than as a diagnostics tool. Gersten utilized ultrasounds heating and disruptive effects to help in an attempt to speed healing. Conversely, extremely high intensities of ultrasound were being used as a non-invasive form of surgery to treat neurological and physiological disorders.

Finally, after some 120 years beginning with Daniel Colladon, Austrian Karl Dussik in the early 1940’s put ultrasound to use as a diagnostic tool, in his experiments attempting to image the ventricles of the brain. Dussik’s device employed the use of two ultrasound transducers that emitted a transmission beam through the skull. A transducer on each side of the head would then record differing densities of light and collect them on photographic paper. The resulting 2-D image consisted of rows of mosaic light intensity spots which he coined as a “ventriculogram”.

Over the next 10-15 years experimental use of ultrasound and ultrasonic sound waves in the US, Japan, England, and Scotland helped to refine the quality of imaging and the medical community’s ability to diagnose. Not until 1955 did ultrasound become an instrument of diagnosis in the fields of Obstetrics and Gynecology. Leading the way was Professor Ian Donald of Cornwall whose work in Obstetrics/Gynecology (fibroids and ovarian cysts) helped the process gain momentum which in the next 10 years would serve to cast away all doubt about the process. By 1965 the study of pregnancy from gestation to birth became possible enabling safe diagnosis of multiple pregnancies, fetal abnormalities and placenta praevia.

Ultrasounds (sonography) evolution as a safe and non-invasive diagnostic tool in pregnancy since its beginnings has been increasingly important in many medical specialties and continues to be an important tool for physicians worldwide..

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