William J. Fry

William J. Fry
William J. Fry
Pioneer in the field of therapeutic ultrasound who first used computers in diagnostic ultrasonography and neurosonic medical imaging to detect disease.

William J. “Bill” Fry was one of a leading team of researchers in electrical engineering hired by William L. Everitt to the University of Illinois in 1946, a boom time of post-war student enrollment growth. Fry is credited with the initiation of the field of therapeutic ultrasound, and through the development of some of the earliest medical ultrasound imaging systems; he is also credited with introducing ultrasound as a way to detect disease.

Fry had studied theoretical physics at Penn State before working at the Naval Research Laboratory on underwater sound during World War II. After Fry joined the Illinois faculty, Everitt appointed him to establish what became known as the Bioacoustics Research Laboratory.

Due to a lack of space at the time, Fry established his laboratory in a steam tunnel under the Electrical Engineering Building. The unique nature of his research meant Fry had to build many of his instruments from scratch. With his specially built, high-intensity ultrasonic exposure equipment, effects of ultrasound on different kinds of animal tissue started to emerge. The results of his research initiated an entire field of study, the medical application of ultrasound for therapeutic purposes.

Fry’s primary objective was to develop ultrasound as an alternative method of neurosurgery. By the mid-1950s, he developed a new class of ultrasound transducers, powering surgical methods that could be tested on humans.

Russell Myers, a professor of neurosurgery at the University of Iowa showed interest in this sonic surgery capability. As a result of Fry’s research, he felt that human neurosonic surgery could be achieved, and on March 21, 1958, a successful 12-hour operation using ultrasound was performed on a patient who had Parkinson’s disease. Over the next four years the Bioacoustics Research Laboratory regularly sent people to Iowa to oversee and conduct the procedures performed on nearly 90 patients.

Fry served as the president of the American Institute of Ultrasound in Medicine, overseeing the change of the organization’s focus from therapeutic ultrasound to diagnostic ultrasound. He directed the development of a combined neurosonic imaging and surgery system to develop jointly those procedures. He also developed some of the earliest medical ultrasound systems, being credited for the initiation of the use of ultrasound to detect diseases.

Fry’s groundbreaking research continued until his death in 1968 at the young age of 49. Afterwards, his brother, Frank, continued that work, leading to many more “firsts” in the field, including the scanning and imaging of live human brains.


BS Pennsylvania State University, 1948