Professor Peter Wells
Medical physicist in the forefront of developments in ultrasound non-invasive imaging techniques
PROFESSOR PETER WELLS, who has died aged 80, was a medical physicist who developed ultrasound as a non-invasive imaging technique used in medical diagnosis and surgery. Ultrasound uses high-frequency sound waves to create an image of internal structures and had first been developed for the purpose of underwater navigation by submarines in the First World War. In the 1950s it was developed as a diagnostic tool by the obstetrician Ian Donald, in Glasgow. But early machines were the size of a car and tended to yield fuzzy images. Their bulky nature and expense meant that their use in medicine was limited.
In the early 1960s ENT surgeons at Bristol General Hospital, where Wells was working as a junior medical physicist, were considering a surgical treatment for Ménière’s disease, a disorder of the inner ear, involving irradiating the ear canals with ultrasound. The existing equipment was unsatisfactory and Wells was asked to develop something that was easier to use.
He developed a miniature, sterilisable ultrasonic probe, and a variety of measurement techniques, earning an MSC for his thesis on the subject. In his spare time he took a PHD in Zoology, on the biological effects of ultrasound, under Herbert Freundlich.
Wells remained at the forefront of ultrasound technology, becoming involved in the 1960s in building one of the world’s first two-dimensional, articulated-arm ultrasonic general purpose scanners, constructing the first water-immersion automated ultrasonic breast scanner and the first catheter-mounted endosonographic probe (for the detection of gastrointestinal disease) outside Japan.
He co-authored a paper demonstrating the feasibility of pulsed Doppler in ultrasound, working on its applications until his retirement. Most importantly, his discovery of the characteristic Doppler signal produced by malignant tumours led to the development of ultrasound diagnosis of many cancers. In the 1970s he was in the forefront of a technique known as greyscale ultrasound, developing measurement guidelines to ensure its safe application.
Peter Neil Temple Wells was born in Bristol on May 19 1936 and educated at Clifton College. He then worked as a student apprentice at GEC and took a degree in Electrical Engineering at the University of Aston. After attending a course held at Bristol General Hospital by Herbert Freundlich, he took up an appointment there as a basic grade physicist with a special interest in ultrasound.
In 1972 he was appointed Professor of Medical Physics at the Welsh National School of Medicine in Cardiff. On Freundlich’s retirement two years later he took over as head of the Bristol Medical Physics Department, which he built into a large internationally renowned centre.
From 1982 to 2000 he was chief physicist at United Bristol Healthcare NHS Trust and from 1986 to 2000 was honorary professor in Clinical Radiology at Bristol University. He was honorary director of the Bristol’s Centre for Physics and Engineering Research in Medicine from 1996 and from 2000 he was professor (later emeritus professor) of Physics and Engineering in Medicine.
In 2011 he returned to Cardiff University as a distinguished research professor where, among other things, he worked on a new type of CT scanning, likely to be used for ultrasonic breast screening, as well as a much faster form of ultrasound scanning.
Wells contributed to more than 15 books and 250 scientific articles, chaired and was president of many scientific committees and won numerous awards for his work. He was elected a Fellow of the Royal Academy of Engineering in 1983, a Fellow of the Royal Society of Medicine in 1984 and a Fellow of the Royal Society in 2003, winning its Royal Medal in 2013 for “the development of ultrasonics as a diagnostic and surgical tool which has revolutionised clinical practice”. The following year he was awarded the Royal Academy of Engineering’s Sir Frank Whittle Medal. He was appointed CBE in 2009. He married, in 1960, Valerie Johnson, who survives him with their three sons and a daughter.
Wells: enabled ultrasound diagnosis of tumours