Obituary: Tom Brown, Fife engineer who was a pioneer in the invention and development of ultrasound imaging

Tom Brown, an electrical engineer whose technical ­creativity, foresight, and dogged determination gave rise to the development of medical ultrasound, died in December aged 86.

Thursday, 2nd January 2020, 10:58 am
Tom Brown, pioneer in the invention and development of medical ultrasound imaging.

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 which, at that time, ­prepared many pupils for entry into undergraduate study in sciences. He 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 the Queen by building a TV 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.

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He called Donald directly, offering technical support and adaptation. William ­Slater, deputy managing director, provided moral and financial support. Tom 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 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. 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 to 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 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. During these years his mischievous and irreverent humour, and general resistance to authority, gained him many friends and, undoubtedly, some enemies too.

Returning to Scotland, he tried his hand at retirement near family in Kinghorn. Now a grandfather of five, he enjoyed being able to support their development and excelled in maintaining a rich supply of biscuits and cakes and entertaining them with baby seagull feeding, ­trolley-riding and trips up and down his stairlift with optional North Sea oil industry safety wear.

Tom 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.

His front room ­doubled as a digital ­communications and research hub where he would maintain email contact with many friends, colleagues, and both past and would-be collaborators for his ongoing ideas for technical advancements.

In later years Tom struck up a professional friendship with Dr Graham Tydeman, who has recently retired after 21 years as consultant in obstetrics and gynaecology in Fife.

Reflecting on how much he enjoyed it when Tom called into the local hospital to see him, Dr Tydeman said: “We had such brilliant chats. The importance of medical ultrasound in the detection, treatment and prevention of disease is as important as the invention of penicillin.”

A more formal recognition of Tom’s contributions was made in 2007 when The Royal College of Obstetrics and Gynaecology awarded him 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 repetitive strain injury (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 70s, Tom was undeterred by age or time-limited funding for this initiative. He invested in a lathe and other equipment for a workshop in his basement where he could 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.

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’s essential contribution to ultrasound’s development was recognised once more in December 2018 at the Scottish Parliament following a motion raised by Angela Constance MSP, ‘to mark the 60th anniversary of the ultrasound scanner, invented in Scotland’.

Members of his family joined surviving colleagues from those early days in the public gallery, and ­later raised a glass to Tom. He passed away peacefully almost a year to the day of that special recognition.

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

The funeral will take place on Friday, January 3 at Kirkcaldy Crematorium at 12.45 pm.