Imagine you met with an accident. You suffered minor injuries, including a bruised and swollen leg. Then, as you consult a doctor, they prescribe you surgery just to find out whether you have a broken leg or not! Sounds strange, right? Well, this was the case a hundred years back. Today medical science is capable of diagnosing a broken bone, a tumour, a swallowed object and much more without even touching the patient, all thanks to the discovery of X-rays. And what if we say this life-changing discovery was not an intentional one? Yes, X-rays were an accidental discovery. So come, let's explore the history behind this momentous event that revolutionised the fields of physics and medicine.
One of Röntgen's earliest experiments with X-rays was a film of his wife Anna Bertha's hand with her wedding ring visible.
Wilhelm Conrad Röntgen, a Professor of Physics at the University of Würzburg, Germany, focused on experiments concerning electric discharges in glass vacuum tubes like most physicists of his day. While testing whether cathode rays could pass through the glass, on 8 November 1895, Röntgen observed a fluorescent glow of crystals on a table a few feet away from the tube. To his surprise, the mysterious light ray had escaped through the heavy black paper covered over the cathode tube.
Because Röntgen did not know what the rays were, he called the rays "X", meaning unknown rays. Through further experiments, he found that the x-rays passed through almost every substance, including the body's soft tissues, but left shadows of solid objects like bones and metals.
The medical community quickly recognised the potential of Röntgen's discovery and started applying it for diagnostic purposes like locating gunshots, bone fractures, kidney stones, breast cancers and swallowed objects.
One of Röntgen's earliest experiments with X-rays was a film of his wife Anna Bertha's hand with her wedding ring visible. It was taken two days before Christmas in 1895. On December 28, he submitted the manuscript of his findings to the secretary of the Physics and Medical Society in Würzburg. He sent the printed copies, along with nine X-ray images, to some of his colleagues in Europe in January 1896.
Following the public presentation of his findings, the news of Röntgen's discovery started to spread worldwide and received great attention from the scientific community. Prominent scientists of the time, including Thomas Edison, Nikola Tesla, and William J. Morton, initially raised suspicions about the potential risks of radiation exposure. Newspapers and magazines created numerous stories regarding the invention of the mysterious rays that could pass through everything. Fanciful poems and cartoons portraying X-rays added to the imagination of common people. Some of the stories scared people so deep that even underwears of lead were manufactured to counter attempts on peeking with "X-ray glasses." Until the 1940s, the use of X-rays was widespread and unrestrained. Even shoe stores offered free X-rays as a marketing strategy.
The medical community quickly recognised the potential of Röntgen's discovery and started applying it for diagnostic purposes like locating gunshots, bone fractures, kidney stones, breast cancers and swallowed objects. Several medical radiographs were made in Europe and the United States within a month after the announcement of the discovery. The entire scientific community officially recognised Röntgen's discovery, and he was awarded the first-ever Nobel Prize for Physics in 1901.
The discovery of X-rays paved the way for the development of many modern imaging techniques, like MRI, CT, ultrasound, echocardiography, and many others, that we use in the medical field today. However, X-rays are also used for non-medical purposes like airport security, revealing counterfeit art, industrial use and much more.
Wilhelm Röntgen, unlike other scientists, never tried to attain credit for his work, and he never took out any patents on X-rays. Instead, he ensured that the world could freely benefit from his work. He rejected a title that would have given him entry into the German nobility and donated his Nobel Prize money to his university. At the time of his death in 1923, Röntgen was nearly bankrupt from the inflation following World War I. Today, the world thanks Röntgen for his discovery that changed the field of medical imaging forever.
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