By Patricia Sullivan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, September 24, 2009
John J. Wild, 95, a research physician who invented a way to find tumors using ultrasound, a noninvasive technique that allowed doctors to spot breast cancer and to provide expectant mothers with their first glimpse of their unborn babies, died of complications from a stroke Sept. 18 at N.C. Little Memorial Hospice in Edina, Minn. He lived in St. Louis Park, Minn.
Dr. Wild's work formed a foundation for modern ultrasonic scanners, which can be found in most medical clinics where breast cancer screening is done. Although he worked with a team, and other scientists in the United States and abroad were engaged in similar research, Dr. Wild alone was named the 1991 winner of the Japan Prize, a world-renowned science award given by the Science and Technology Foundation of Japan.
The path to his breakthrough discovery started during World War II. Dr. Wild, then a surgeon at Miller General Hospital in Kent, was interested in treating bowel bloating, an often fatal condition suffered by British residents in shock from German buzz bomb blasts. An inveterate tinker, he had already created an instrument dubbed "the Wild tube" to treat the condition, but he continued to look for a better solution.
Dr. Wild moved to the University of Minnesota after the war and began trying to measure the thickness of bowel walls. He first used a machine designed to find stress fractures in tanks, then acquired a radar simulator used to train airmen to read maps, equipment that had been lying unused at a local naval air base.
His 1949 discovery was a coincidence, said John M. Reid, an electrical engineer who helped Dr. Wild build the first clinical ultrasonic scanner. "The first [tissue] sample had a bit of cancer in it, and he could see it in the ultrasound picture better than he could otherwise," Reid said Tuesday.
Sonic energy, Dr. Wild realized, was reflected as echoes from soft tissues, allowing doctors to spot tumors. It was a groundbreaking discovery, but one that was not immediately recognized by the medical establishment.
"We were making pictures with sound waves, and everybody knows you listen to sound waves," Reid said.
Dr. Wild later said that he tested the safety of sound waves on a cow kidney that his wife intended to use to make a pie. Other published accounts said he aimed the scanner at his thigh to help him distinguish differences in the tissues.
Supported by a U.S. Public Health Service fellowship and later by National Cancer Institute grants, Dr. Wild and Reid built an instrument in 1953 that produced a real-time image of cancer in a breast. Subsequently, they began finding more tumors and branched out into other parts of the body and diagnosed a brain tumor that was later confirmed by surgery.
John Julian Cuttance Wild was born in Bedford Park, a London suburb, on Aug. 11, 1914. He ran away from home at 8 and managed to live in a tree for a week, his daughter said, which convinced his parents that he should stay out of school for a year.
At 14, he became dissatisfied with the balance of hot and cold water in his bathtub and invented an automatic valve that did the job to his satisfaction, resulting in his first patent. Later, during the gasoline shortage of World War II, he reengineered a 1921 Harley-Davidson motorcycle and sidecar so that it would run on gas from plentiful charcoal.
He graduated from Downing College, Cambridge University, in 1933 and received a master's degree there in 1940 and the equivalent of a medical degree in 1942. While working at the Kent hospital, he was buried for hours in rubble after a V-1 rocket exploded nearby, emerging unscathed.
In 1944, he joined the Royal Army Medical Corps, treating hundreds of British and U.S. soldiers for venereal disease, he said on his Web site.
He worked at the University of Minnesota from the late 1940s until 1953, leaving to run a medical-technological research unit at the Minnesota Foundation. After it was closed in 1960 over his objections, he became director of another research institute in Minneapolis. Since 1966, he also worked as a doctor in private practice and continued to research ultrasonic scanning under federal grants.
In 1972, Dr. Wild won a $16.3 million award from a Hennepin County, Minn., jury over a claim of defamation and breach of contract after the Minnesota Foundation and Amherst H. Wilder Foundation closed his laboratory. The Guinness Book of Records at the time called it the world's largest defamation judgment. There were appeals, and the suit was settled out of court for an undisclosed amount in 1981.
"He was an eccentric chap," said Peter N.T. Wells, editor emeritus of the journal Ultrasound in Medicine and Biology, who was on Dr. Wild's 1971 doctoral committee at Cambridge. "He was a bit secretive about his work . . . [and] rather stingy." Dr. Wild happened to be visiting Cambridge when he learned that he won the Japan Prize, with an award of about $350,000.
"You'd think he'd stand for drinks," Wells said. "Actually, I paid the bill."
Dr. Wild resisted being managed by anyone else and didn't suffer gladly those who didn't see the benefits of interdisciplinary teams in medical research, his family said.
"I think I must have come into this world with a propensity for making chaos out of order, since I always seem to be upsetting those concerned with maintaining conventional levels of orderliness and humbleness," he once said.
His marriages to Carmen Wild and Nancy Wild ended in divorce.
Survivors include his wife of 41 years, Valerie Grosenick Wild of St. Louis Park, Minn.; two sons from his second marriage, John Ovid Wild and Douglas Julian Wild, both of Minneapolis; a daughter from his third marriage, Ellen Louise "Nellie" Wild of Bethesda; and three grandchildren.