MS Heroes: Dr. W. Ian McDonald

Community Member

Dr. W. Ian McDonald (April 15, 1933 - December 13, 2006) was my MS hero before I even knew his name. The chances are he was yours, too. Dr. McDonald, as a researcher, professor, and also as a writer, brought order and understanding to the mystery of MS.

I kept going to my doctor for various symptoms, and he sent me to various specialists who treated each problem. Sound familiar so far? There was something wrong that was bigger than the sum of all of these separate episodes, but I didn't know what it was. Then, I met Dr. McDonald through his work. The pattern of my symptoms was recognized as neurological, and I was introduced to the MRI. My particular symptoms over time with the results of my MRI gave the sum of these episodes a name. It was at the end of years of symptoms and seeing doctors but with no answers I had MS.

Dr. McDonald's work began as he studied neurology in New Zealand and later in the UK, focusing on multiple sclerosis.

He was one of few neurologists active in research and experimentation, and others were eager to work with him. In the 1960s, he and Professor Sears demonstrated that demyelination slowed or interrupted the conduction of signals to and from the brain. Wow. This was a big step very important in understanding multiple sclerosis, and it is the foundation of MS research.

In the 1970s, McDonald worked with Dr. Halliday to develop Visual Evoked Response tests which can indicate optic neuritis based on the response pattern. These tests are now a normal part of the MS diagnostic procedure.

In the 1980s, he saw diagnosing MS as a difficult process. It was often quite haphazard and took years for questionable results, so Dr. McDonald did something about it. He developed a standard set of criteria for diagnosis. About that time, the MRI was developed and it could possibly be used to illuminate any brain inflammation. In his criteria, Dr. McDonald emphasized the use of the MRI as a valuable tool for recognizing MS patterns in the brain. MS could be diagnosed without an MRI using just the McDonald Criteria, but diagnosis became quicker and more definite with the MRI.

The standard criteria and an MRI scan finally brought me an answer. His diagnostic work was more than twenty years ago, and much has been done since then. The McDonald Criteria has been revised and updated in 2001 and again in 2005, strengthening the role of the MRI, including a spinal scan. MRI results could now help identify specific types of MS, including PPMS.

The entire time Dr. McDonald was active in research, he was also active teaching and encouraging the next generation of neurologists at the National Hospital, Queen Square in London. Professor McDonald received recognition that includes the Harveian Librarian of the Royal College of Physicians, Emeritus Professor of Clinical Neurology and Emeritus Consultant Physician. His students are now caring for MSers and their carers. All of us who have been diagnosed with MS since the 1960s can find gratitude to Dr. McDonald. He was associated with another of my MS Heroes, Sylvia Lawry. He was generous as a volunteer to the Multiple Sclerosis International Federation (MSIF), a member of the MSIF International Medical Advisory Board, and the Chairman from 1999 to 2003. He inspired and encouraged neurologists and supporters to participate and fund the Sylvia Lawry Centre for MS Research .

It doesn't sound as if he had time for a private life, but somehow he did. He loved music and even played the piano in a performing trio. As he lectured in many different countries around the world, he found associations with professional artists.

Dr. W. Ian McDonald is my MS hero for the work he did to simplify the MS diagnosis, his work with Sylvia Lawry's associations, and his ability to develop such an interesting life beyond MS. I learned his name when he died in 2006. We now need another hero like Dr. McDonald to simplify and clarify the status of limbo.

Notes and Links:

Obituary for the Ambassador for British neurology

Down the MS Path note on his death Books