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Ultrasound pioneer recognised with award

A pioneering engineer who helped develop medical ultrasound scans will receive one of the highest accolades in the engineering community on Monday.

Cardiff University’s Professor Peter Wells will be presented with a Royal Academy of Engineering’s Sir Frank Whittle Medal, which was first won by creator of the World Wide Web Sir Tim Berners-Lee in 2001, at the Academy’s AGM in London.

However, far from sitting on his laurels, Wells says he is seeking further breakthroughs and he is currently involved in developing a new type of CT scanning likely to be used for ultrasonic breast screening, which would particularly benefit younger women. He is also in the very early stages of trying to develop a much faster form of ultrasound scanning.

“I hope to go on being involved forever. It’s the interest of the work – you don’t do it for the money,” he said. “You do it because it’s interesting, and working in healthcare, you see some benefits.

“When people have their ultrasound scans, they are using technology I helped develop. But I’m sure somebody else would’ve done it if I hadn’t!”

In his early work Wells developed a novel ultrasonic probe for the safe treatment of Meniere’s disease and showed that there was a threshold for non-thermal biological damage. He also devised what was at the time the most accurate instrument for measuring low-power ultrasound.

He went on to demonstrate the feasibility of pulsed Doppler and became the first person to describe the directivities of Doppler transducers. Other important pioneering work included the design of dynamic focusing with annular array transducers, acoustic speckle and the measurement of blood flow volume rate and Doppler blood flow signals.

He received a Royal Medal from The Royal Society, the UK’s national academy of science, in relation to his ultrasound research last year.

Wells added: “I think it’s very important that you shouldn’t only do things that are of direct benefit or interest to you. “You should do it for the benefit of the scientific community.”

Wells started his career in Bristol before being appointed Professor of Medical Physics at the Welsh National School of Medicine in 1971 at the age of 35.

“I was head of one of the largest medical physics and bioengineering departments in the UK and it allowed me to get to grips with politics and survival in the wider world,” he said. “Cardiff had confidence in me from a very early age.”

In 1975 he became chief physicist with the United Bristol Hospitals NHS Trust and was also made Chair of Physics and Engineering in Medicine at the University of Bristol before returning to Cardiff.

Wells’ citation states: “Professor Peter Wells is one of the most well-known and highly regarded figures in the world of medical ultrasound. His outstanding and sustained engineering achievements in the medical applications of ultrasound extend continuously from the 1960s to the present day.”

Sir John Parker, president of the academy, said: “Using engineering science, Peter Wells has pioneered the development of ultrasonics as a diagnostic and surgical tool, which has revolutionised clinical practice.

“His vision and determination in exploiting the advantages of ultrasound as a non-invasive imaging technique have contributed to huge improvements in healthcare and he is a worthy winner of the Whittle Medal.”