Impact of Ultrasound on Medical Imaging: 1967–2021

In 1967, a weekly feature for medical school seniors was the ‘bullpen’ in the Charity Hospital amphitheater. Students were assigned a patient and given 30 minutes to do a history and physical exam and then present their differential diagnosis and recommendations to an attending. Diagnosis was almost exclusively based on the history and physical examination. Laboratory studies were generally confined to basic electrolytes, a CBC, urinalysis, sputum stains, and a chest x-ray.

This prepared me well for internship and residency on the Osler Medical Service at Johns Hopkins Hospital. Interns were on call 24 hours a day for 6 days a week and usually spent 16 to 18 hours a day attending patients at the bedside.

On Osler, there were no computers and handwritten or typed paper records hung on a chart rack. The wards were not air-conditioned, and yellow curtains separated each of the 28 beds. There were no patient monitors, IV pumps, or respirators, and interns performed all of the basic lab work on their patients. Nursing care was excellent; the house staff and nurses worked as a team caring for the patients. Lack of technology was compensated for by close and direct interaction with the patients and their families, and the practice of medicine was extremely satisfying and filled with empathy and compassion.

The patient was the object of all of our attention. In the late 1960s, imaging was limited and played a relatively minor role in diagnosis and management. Defensive medicine was not a concern.

Following my internal medicine residency at Hopkins, I spent the next 3 years in the immunology branch of the National Cancer Institute in Bethesda. The research centered on the new field of bone marrow transplantation and treatment of graft vs. host disease.1 Whole-body radiation prepared candidates for transplantation and my experience in dealing with near-lethal doses of radiation led me to pursue a career in radiation oncology.

After completing a residency in general and therapeutic radiology in 1975, I joined the staff of the Ochsner Clinic in New Orleans, practicing a combination of radiation therapy and general radiography and fluoroscopy. Imaging was film-based, with studies hung on multipanel viewboxes for interpretation and a hot light for image processing. Cases were dictated directly to a transcriptionist in a cubicle next to the reading room and were typed and signed in real time. The daily workload included 40 to 50 barium studies along with numerous oral cholecystograms, intravenous urograms, and chest and bone radiographs. Specialized imaging consisted of polytomography, penumoencephalography, lymphangiography, and angiography. Evaluation of the aorta, runoff vessels, and carotid vessels was performed by direct puncture. Women’s imaging consisted of xeromammograms, hysterosalpingography, and pelvimetry. Image-guided intervention was nonexistent.

That year, ultrasound was in its early clinical development and I acquired a machine and placed it in the radiation therapy department and began scanning patients from the nearby emergency department. At that time there were no other sectional imaging modalities (CT was not yet available for clinical use.).

A large part of the challenge of ultrasound was learning anatomy in a completely new way. As a result, my groundwork in understanding sectional anatomy came from ultrasound. Ultrasound, unlike CT and MR, permitted imaging not only in standardized axial planes but allowed scan planes in virtually any orientation, requiring a very detailed knowledge of anatomy.

In 1976, upon the retirement of Dr. Seymour Ochsner, I became Chair of the department at Ochsner. This provided me with an opportunity to re-equip the department at a time that the entire field of imaging was undergoing immense change. With ultrasound, new findings were being reported regularly2, and the overall quality of ultrasound images often exceeded those of early body CT scans.

The development of Doppler ultrasound in the late 1970s further expanded the applications of ultrasound, although prior to the introduction of color Doppler, this was mainly of interest to vascular surgeons, and diagnosis was based on waveform analysis rather than imaging.

An important technological development at the end of the 1970s was real-time ultrasound, leading to the rapid development of new applications in obstetrical, abdominal, pediatric, and intraoperative imaging3,4.

Developments in computers in the early 1980s led me to an opportunity to participate in the development of exciting new technologies, including a breakthrough involving ultrasound and providing a method to image Doppler information. Working with a small company in Seattle and a large prototype device, we generated the first images of blood flow in the abdomen and peripheral vessels using color Doppler5,6. Color Doppler, by allowing Doppler information to be shown in an image rather than as a waveform, was important in getting radiologists interested in Doppler. Today, color Doppler is an integral part of the ultrasound examination.

A less successful application of ultrasound in the 1980s was in the evaluation of the breast. Early breast scanners produced quality images by scanning the breast, as the patient lay prone in a water tank. Unfortunately, breast ultrasound was promoted aggressively by many manufacturers and by the mid-1980s was discredited as a useful addition to mammography. By the mid-1990s, however, advances in breast ultrasound demonstrated an important role in the evaluation of breast masses, making ultrasound an indispensable part of breast imaging and leading to the BI-RADS breast imaging and reporting system for ultrasound7–9.

Ultrasound also has had a major impact in providing guidance for minimally invasive diagnostic procedures. Fine-needle biopsy of lesions of the liver, kidney, retroperitoneum, as well as peripheral lymph nodes and the thyroid, have become a standard part of the diagnostic workup.

A radiologist of 50 years ago would not recognize the field if he or she were to return today. In fewer than 50 years, the computer has changed the practice of medicine. More precise and early diagnosis are clear benefits of the technology of the 21st century, but are accompanied by the perils of over utilization prompted by defensive medicine with interests of the physician potentially overshadowing those of the patient.

Although the contribution of these advances has benefited countless patients, many of the rewards of the practice of medicine have been diminished. In looking back at my 50 years of practicing medicine, recalling my final grand rounds at Charity Hospital, I appreciate the diagnostic skills acquired through history and physical examination, as well as the relationship I had with my patients during my clinical years. To me, this represents the real definition of being a physician. In many cases, these simple tools were often as effective, and certainly more satisfying, than today’s tendency to view the patient as the result of an imaging test rather than a person.

Christopher R. B. Merritt, MD, is a Past President (1986–1988) of the American Institute of Ultrasound in Medicine (AIUM) where he led the development of the AIUM/NEMA/FDA Output Display Standard, and served as a founder of the Intersocietal Commission for the Accreditation of Vascular Laboratories (ICAVL).


  1. Merritt CB, Mann DL, Rogentine GN Jr. Cytotoxic antibody for epithelial cells in human graft versus host disease. Nature 1971; 232:638.
  2. Merritt CRB. Ultrasound demonstration of portal vein thrombosis. Radiology 1979; 133:425–427.
  3. Merritt CRB, Coulon R, Connolly E. Intraoperative neurosurgical ultrasound: transdural and tranfontanelle applications. Radiology 1983; 148:513–517.
  4. Merritt CRB, Goldsmith JP, Sharp MJ. Sonographic detection of portal venous gas in infants with necrotizing enterocolitis. AJR 1984; 143:1059–1062.
  5. Merritt CRB. Doppler colour flow imaging. Nature 1987; Aug 20; 328:743–744.
  6. Merritt CRB. Doppler color flow imaging. J Clin Ultrasound 1987; 15:591–597.
  7. Mendelson EB, Berg WA, Merritt CRB. Towards a standardized breast ultrasound lexicon, BI-RADS: ultrasound. Semin Roentgenol 2001; 36:217–225.
  8. Taylor KWJ, Merritt C, Piccoli C, et al. Ultrasound as a complement to mammography and breast examination to characterize breast masses. Ultrasound Med Biol 2002; 28:19–26.
  9. Berg WA, Blume JD, Cormack JB, et al. Combined screening with ultrasound and mammography vs mammography alone in women at elevated risk of breast cancer. JAMA 2008; 299(18):2151–2163.