Pioneer in the invention and development of medical ultrasound imaging

Born: April 10, 1933;

Died: December 13, 2019

THOMAS Graham Brown, who has died aged 86, was was an electrical engineer whose technical creativity, foresight, and dogged determination gave rise to the development of medical ultrasound.

The eldest surviving son of Thomas Brown and Nell Docherty, Tom grew up in Glasgow with his younger brother Iain. As a child he showed early promise in technology, dismantling and reassembling many household items, setting up electric lighting in a house in the middle of the countryside with no electricity, and building radio sets. He attended Allan Glen's school and went on to take up an apprenticeship with Kelvin & Hughes, scientific instrument makers in Glasgow. In 1953 he enabled family and neighbours to watch the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II by building a television set.

At the age of 23 an overheard conversation when changing a lightbulb at the Western Infirmary in Glasgow alerted him to the fact that local obstetrician Professor Ian Donald was attempting to differentiate between uterine fibroids and cysts using one of the firm's metal flaw detectors. He called Donald directly, offering technical support and adaptation. William Slater, deputy managing director, provided moral and financial support for this venture.

Brown and Donald thus began a collaboration leading to the development of the prototype for the first compound contact scanner. A working version was put to use by Donald in 1957. Together with Dr John McVicar, they published their seminal Lancet paper less than two years after their first meeting. The British Medical Ultrasound Society marks this milestone annually with its Donald, McVicar, Brown (DMB) Lecture. The Diasonograph machine later went into production and was the first to be commercially available.

Tom married student nurse Geira Stevens in 1958. They went on to have three daughters and the family settled in Aberdour in Fife.

He went on to work as Chief Engineer of Honeywell Controls Medical Division in 1965 then as Ultrasound Project Manager with Nuclear Enterprises (GB) Ltd in Edinburgh. In 1970 he secured a research fellowship with Edinburgh University's Medical Physics Department, advancing his inventive work in the direction of three dimensional imaging techniques. From 1973 he developed and produced Sonicaid's Multiplanar Scanner in Livingston. This technology depended on the fusing of two stereoscopic images by the user's eye, to reveal a richer three dimensional representation of tissue or foetus. As an idea somewhat 'before its time', alongside the emergence of real time scanning techniques, it was not commercially successful. Production was discontinued in 1979 and Tom was made redundant.

His boldness, determination and pragmatism then led him towards work in the offshore oil industry. His career took a further change in direction towards Quality Assurance/Quality Control work, largely in gas and oil. He travelled widely for work and after stints in Northumberland, the Scottish Highlands, Cumbria, and the Netherlands, he settled in South London in 1987. Latterly he returned to a more medical setting as a Quality Manager at St George's Hospital before ostensibly retiring in 2002.

Returning to his native Scotland, he tried his hand at retirement near family in Fife. Now grandfather of five, he enjoyed building and nurturing his large garden but without a technical project (or several) he was discontent. He put his skills and interests to use though involvement with Burntisland's Museum of Communication, organising meetings of his local Prostate Cancer support group, and campaigning vociferously against the dismantling of public toilet facilities on human rights grounds. Additionally, he helped to establish the Kinghorn Community Land Association.

In 2007 The Royal College of Obstetrics and Gynaecology awarded Tom an Honorary Fellow ad eundem.

Never one to cease exercising his sharp and inventive mind, his youngest daughter's troubled second pregnancy reinvogorated his active efforts in the field of obstetric ultrasound. A trainee sonographer picked up vasa praevia, a potentially fatal condition, at a late scan. Thanks to the technology he'd helped to create, his youngest grandson was delivered safely by C section at 37 weeks.

Following this, Tom looked into screening protocols for such preventative interventions. He discovered a reason for the lack of routine screening for vasa praevia is a high rate of RSI in sonographers, leading to limited availability.

His subsequent work, including the Kinghorn Project (funded by the NHS Innovations Centre between 2010 and 2012) set out to tackle this issue. He reviewed the design interface between scanning machines and their operators, seeking to improve the ergonomic design to prevent RSI. Now well into his seventies, Tom was undeterred by age or time-limited funding for this initiative. He latterly invested in a lathe and other equipment to furnish a workshop in his basement where he could start to realise his design ideas.

His contributions to the story of obstetric ultrasound were documented in Malcolm Nicholson and John Fleming's 2013 publication Imaging and Imagining the Foetus. His achievements were celebrated again through induction to the Scottish Engineering Glasgow Hall of Fame in October 2014. Now in failing health, he was unable to attend but his granddaugher Emma Hutton accepted this honour on his behalf.

Over the following month, he continued to email a range of colleagues alerting them to work yet to be done to realise his later ideas. A pneumonia infection halted this overnight when he was found unresponsive, with ensuing delirium. He subsequently struggled to recover his health and independence, and spent his last few years in care in Kirkcaldy.

Tom Brown's essential contribution to ultrasound's development was recognised once more in December 2018 at the Scottish Parliament. This was to mark "The 60th Anniversary of the Ultrasound Scanner, Invented in Scotland" following a motion raised by Angela Constance MSP. Members of his family joined other surviving colleagues involved in those early days in the public gallery, and later raised a glass to Tom.

Tom Brown is survived by his daughters Alison, Kate and Rhona, his grandchildren Paul, Emma, Robyn, Sorcha, Dan and Tom, and his great grand-daughter Aila.