Bavaria · Medicine · Nobel Prize · X-Ray

November 8, 1895 – Wilhelm Röntgen discovers x-rays

Beside my curiosity for all things modern medicine, I also work for a radiology software company, so today’s subject matter jumped right into my lap.

X-ray of my cat
X-ray of my cat

On the night of November 8, 1895, Wilhelm Conrad Röntgen–a Physics Professor at the University of Würzburg–made an unusual discovery. He was testing the path of cathode rays from an induction tube as they passed through a glass tube. The tube was completely coated in black paper and he was working in a dark room. During the experiment, Röntgen noticed that a piece of paper coated with barium platinocyanide began to glow.

Further experiments with this coated paper showed that it would glow as far away from the source as two meters. He began testing the rays passing through other materials of varying thickness and noticed that they cast a shadow onto a photographic plate.

The very first Röntgenogram was taken as he held his wife’s hand in the path of the rays. The bones of her hand and the ring on her finger cast a much darker shadow than the flesh of her hand.

Very First X-ray
X-Ray of Anna Berths Ludwig hand Wikipedia

I am just trying to picture this conversation. “Hey dear, when I pass these rays through this block of wood it casts a shadow on the photo plate. Let’s see what happens as we pass the rays through your hand. I am certain it is safe!”

Röntgen’s experiments show that the new rays are produced as the cathode ray impacts the material object. Because of their unknown origin, Röntgen named them X-rays.

Definition of X-Ray – an electromagnetic wave of high energy and very short wavelength, which is able to pass through many materials opaque to light

The internal structures of the body could now be seen unobtrusively and there was no longer a need to cut someone open just to peek inside. The very first x-ray department was created in 1896 in at the Glasgow Royal Infirmary. As head of the worlds first radiology department, Dr. John Macintyre, was able to see some extraordinary things with this new device.  He was able to see a penny lodged in a child’s throat, the first x-ray of a kidney stone, and the x-ray of a frog’s legs in motion.

In 1897 the x-ray made its debut on the military battlefield as doctors used it to locate bullets and bone fragments in the wounded of the Boer Wars. Imagine, just 32 years prior–during the American Civil War–a musket ball to the leg meant that leg was coming off. Now, thanks to Röntgen’s discoveries, soldiers’ limbs could be saved.

Wilhelm Conrad Röntgen was the recipient of the 1901 Noble Prize in Physics, “in recognition of the extraordinary services he has rendered by the discovery of the remarkable rays subsequently named after him” –

It did not take very long for people to begin to understand that the effects of repeated exposure to x-rays was a bad thing. Thomas Edison had an assistant, Clarence Dally, that devoted his research time to x-rays and was one of the earliest victims of radiation exposure to x-rays. By 1900, he had developed lesions on his left hand, so he started using his right hand for research. Dally died in 1904 from skin cancer from repeated exposure to x-rays.

x-ray tube ad
X-ray tube ad

Today, we take for granted the discovery of x-rays. We use them to fight cancer, for medical images, for food safety, and to peek inside our luggage before it gets loaded on an airplane.

Thank you Mr. Dally for your sacrifice, and thank you Herr Röntgen for playing with cathode rays in the dark.



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