Donald L. Scantlebury, 52, the chief accountant of the General Accounting Office and director of its accounting and management division, died at Arlington Hospital Thursday following a heart attack.

Mr. Scantlebury, who joined the GAO in 1956, was a proponent of stronger accounting controls as a means of reducing fraud and waste in the federal government in line with the GAO's purpose. He began his government career in the GAO's defense division.

In 1964, he transferred to the field operations division and was manager of the Washington field office from then until 1971. His next assignment was the directorship of the financial and general management studies division. He was named the GAO's chief accountant in 1980.

Mr. Scantlebury, who was born in Hampton, Iowa, graduated from Antioch College in Yellow Springs, Ohio. He later attended the executive development program at the university of Michigan and became a certified public accountant.

He was in private practice as a certified public accountant in Racine, Wis., before moving to the Washington area in 1956 to join the GAO. He lived in Arlington.

Mr. Scantlebury was a past national president of the Association of Government Accountants, chairman of the steering committee of the Joint Financial Management Improvement Program, and vice chairman of the National Intergovernmental Audit Forum. In addition, he was a council member of the American Institute of Certified Public Accountants and a member of the executive committee of the National Council on Governmental Accounting.

He was the recipient of several achievement awards from the Association of Government Accounts and the GAO. Among them was the Comptroller General's Award, the highest that the GAO can give.

Mr. Scantlebury's survivors include his wife, Mary, of Arlington; two daughters, Marcia Malloy and Sandra Wilkins, both of Arlington; two sons, Mark, of Portland, Ore., and Glen, of San Francisco; two sisters, Betty Hanor of Cincinnati, and Judy Kothenbeutel of Hampton, and two granddaughters.

The family suggests that expressions of sympathy be in the form of contributions to the American Heart Association.