Wilhelm Conrad Röntgen (1845-1923) and the early development of radiology.
Canad. M. A. J. 1
Jan. 1946, vol. 54i1
MEN AND BOOKS: WILHELM CONRAD RONTGEN
in the larger universities.
of the times aright these alumni are on the way,
at least in provincial universities, to making
their voice heard.
Moreover the curriculum will have to undergo
change, if our students are to fulfil properly their
duties to their patients in all matters that
pertain to the improvement of their health.
Knowledge of town planning, housing, heating
and lighting, clothing, environmental conditions,
as well as of sewage disposal, water and food
supply and measures to be used to prevent
disease, will be essential if they are truly to
fulfil their duties as medical advisers.
has already established a chair of social and
preventive medicine with this in mind.
been said, we have learned in many instances
the cause of disease but do not know the cause
behind the cause.
In our second principle we
state that improved
precede any plan of health insurance.
a thorough understanding and knowledge of the
living conditions, etc. of our patients we are in
a preferred position if adequately trained, to
lead the way in effecting improvement in social
Education in social and preventive
medicine, greater in degree and fuller in scope,
cannot be ignored by our universities.
only should students receive this training but
also our graduates, if they are to co-operate
with the other agencies in their community and
give leadersip in the development, slow though
it be, of all that is good for the health of our
Another phase of education needs emphasiz-
ing, namely, education of the people as to their
responsibility and opportunity as individuals
and members of society in promoting the wel-
fare and happiness of all in a community.
proved health for an individual or a community
can only come into being through co-operation
of all concerned.
In this the practising phy-
sician should and must give leadership with the
assistance of nurses, dentists, hospitals, officers
of health, municipal authorities and all organi-
zations interested in the welfare of the com-
Herein lies a great opportunity for the medical
man, be he teacher or practitioner.
What about postgraduate education?
doors to a large extent closed for study in the
United States and Great Britain, the challenge
to provide postgraduate instruction must be
accepted and made effective by our own uni-
versities, larger hospitals and practitioners.
my mind this is all to the good.
matters pertaining to our national life, we have
been too retiring and timid, have suffered from
an inferiority complex about our abilities and
capacities in the science of medicine.
has shaken some of this nonsense out of us.
May the process continue.
thing as Canadian Medicine.
gether and put it on the map for the glory of
Canada and the benefit of mankind.
If I read the signs
social conditions must
As in other
There is such a
Let us act to-
ffien aub 3BooIi
WILHELM CONRAD RONTGEN (1845-
1923) AND THE EARLY DEVELOPMENT
By E. Ashworth Underwood, M.A.,
The year 1945 is associated in two ways with
the life and work of the great physicist, Rontgen.
Since he was born on March 27, 1845, it is the
His greatest discovery was
made on November 8, 1895, just fifty years
The present time seems opportune to
review his work and to remember, in passing,
those other pioneers who made his discovery
The production of x-rays depends essentially
on the fact that when an interrupted current
of electricity is passed through a vacuum tube,
a stream of rays-the cathode stream-flows
from the cathode.
The cathode stream can
be bent by a magnet.
another body, the glass of the tube or a specially
prepared anode, x-rays are produced.
and properties these are essentially different
advance could be made in the discovery of
x-rays, two operations had to be practicable-
the production, first of a good vacuum, and
second of an interrupted electric current.
is strange that both of the appliances necessary
were discovered by the same man-Otto von
Guericke of Magdeburg-and were published
in the same book.
Guericke (1602-1686) was born in Magdeburg and
studied mathematics and mechanics.
man of the world, and he worked on the fortifications of
He did not publish his celebrated book
until he was 70 years of age, and the date of the invention
of the air-pump is therefore uncertain.
between 1635 and 1645.
He first used wooden casks and
later a copper sphere, which collapsed when a certain
degree of exhaustion had been reached.
strated his results before the Imperial Diet at Ratisbon
The demonstration took first the form of a
proof that after exhaustion thirty horses were required to
pull the spheres apart; and secondly, an estimation of the
actual force required
proved conclusively by this method that air has weight,
and he was able to make a rough guess at its density.
Since his results were not then published, we have to
turn to another source for the first description of his
Caspar Schott (1608-1666) published in 1657.
Schott was Professor of Physics and Mathematics at
Wiirsburg, there is a coincidental connection between
the inventor of the air-pump and the man who made the
most fruitful use of it.
In England Robert Boyle (1627-
1691) became interested in the air, and his air-pump was
an improvement on that of Guericke.
well-known monograph on The Spring of the Air (1660),
which had important results in many fields.
by Boyle's developments, Guericke later made a third
air-pump, which was a great improvement on his previous
Experimenia Nova (ut vocantur) Magdeburgica de Vacuo
*Reproduced in part from the Proceedings of the Royal
Society of Medicine, 38: 697, 1945.
Where it impinges on
He was a practical
It was probably
The result was his
His results were published in his great work,
MEN AND BOOKS: WILHELM CONRAD RONTGEN
ECanad. M. A. J.
L Jan. 1946, vol. 54
tional electric machine.
globe which was filled with molten sulphur.
the glass was removed, and the sulphur sphere was rotated
His work in the field of the induction and con-
duction of electricity was very important, and again he
had a marked influence on Boyle's future experiments.
[A short account is then given of the work of Francis
Hauksbee, William Morgan and other pioneers in this
Mention should also be made of the work of Sir Herbert
Jackson (1863-1936) on the focus tube, which was origin-
ally devised by him in studying the exposure of fluorescent
material to the electrical discharge in vacuum tubes.
William Crookes appears to have discovered the focusing
effect of a concave cathode in 1874, but Jackson was the
first to adopt this design for practical purposes, and he
found that concave cathodes serve to restrict the area of
the phosphorescent matetial.
a discharge tube fitted with a concave aluminium cathode
and an inclined platinurm anode.
Jackson "focus tube".
With it, like otherearly workers,
he undoubtedly obtained x-rays, but he considered that
the rays which were emitted from the anti-cathode were
lotgwave ultraviolet radiations.
of course, as a source of light for his fluorescence experi-
after the announcement
R6ntgen's discovery in January 1896 h;e was able to use
his original tube for x-ray work.
demonstrated the use of this tube at a Conversazione of
the Royal Society, and in the descriptive catalogue of
this function he expressly says that the tube is "a slight
In his obituary of Jackson Dr. Harold Moore
says of his work that, "had the observations been viewed
from a different standpoint, Rontgen's discolvery might
have been considerably anticipated.
did Sir Herbert Jackson advance any claim to be the
original discoverer of x-rays, or countenance any suggestion
that such a claim might be made on his behalf.
expressly stated on several occasions that the character-
istic penetrating power of the radiations emitted by the
anti-cathode was neither discovered nor suspected by
At this time Jackson was working with Mr. D.
Northall Laurie, and many x-rays were taken which do
not seem to have survived.
shown me a number of x-rays which he himself took early
in 1897, still using the original Jackson focus tube, an
Apps coil with 5 inch spark, and an eightfold secondary
R6NTGEN'S EARLIER LIFE AND WORK
It was in late October 1895 that Rontgen
entered the field.
Like so many others who
have scaled the academic heights, his approach
to these glittering summits had been somewhat
unorthodox, and before considering the events
of that pregnant autumn, it would be well to
glance at the man, his nature and his nurture.
This is especially desirable since he is too near
our own time to find more than passing, though
very honourable, mention in the histories of
science, and since moreover he is sufficiently
distant for the-softening of the contours which
the'years bring in their train.
Wilhelm Conrad Rontgen was a Rhinelander
a native of the little town of Lennep im Bergis-
chen, where he was born on March 27, 1845.
His father was a merch'ant, and father and
mother. were first cousins.
When;, Rntgen was 3 years old
the family moved to Apeldoorn, and there,
the Institute of Martinus Herman' van Doorn
Many years later he brushed.
In this Guericke also described his fric-
This consisted of a large glass
In January 1894 he made
This was the original
Jackson used his tube,
On May 6, 1896, he
. of a tube originally introduced by Mr.
At no time, however,
Mr. Laurie has, however,
in. the streets, he added Dutch
up his Dutch in order to greet an old colleague
at an official celebration in Holland.
expelled from the school because of his refusal
to split on a fellow pupil who had drawn
caricature of the teaeher.
matter, since it deprived him of the opportunity
Technical School at Utrecht he did enter the
University-but not as a regular student.
was then nearly 20 years of age.
were easier at Zurich, and in the same year he
passed his entrance examination and migrated
to that beautiful city.
mechanical engineering in 1868, and his degree
of Doctor of Philosophy in 1869 at the age of
24, and before he had finished his course fell
under the spell of Kundt, to whom he became
Kundt to the University of Wurzburg, and in
the following year to Strassburg.
the age of 30 years, he became Professor of
Physics and Mathematics at the Agricultural
Academy of Hohenheim in Wuirtemberg.
It must have been clear to Rontgen's associ-
ates that he would not be satisfied with a chair
in a second or third class institution.
obvious that his technical ability, his facility
for carrying out complicated experiments with
apparatus devised by himself and made with
his own hands, and his deep theoretical knowl-
edge of physics were worthy of higher things.
If he had started his university career badly, he
now took the right step.
a Hohenheim, he returned to Strassburg
the associate professor with Kundt.
the six years which elapsed between his first
arrival at Strassburg and the date of his leaving,
he published fifteen papers-the last three with
In 1879, when he was 34 years of age,
he was called to the Chair of Physics at Giessen.
There he spent nine happy and fruitful years.
In 1888 the University which, although he had
occupied a post on its staff, had refused to
grant him full academic status because of his
honoured him by offering him the
Professor of Physics and Director of its new
In that year he removed
to Wiirzburg with his wife-a relative of Otto
Ludwig, the poet, whom -he had married in
1872-and there they occupied the apartment
on the top floor of the Institute.
is of particular interest to all who areeconnected
with radiology, since it was there that x-rays
were discovered by Rontgen seven years later.
During his twelve. Wiirzburg years R6ntgen
was certainly at the height of his ability as an
home in the Wurzburg atmosphere, and
1894 he was.Rector of the University.
the personal, reminiscences given by Friiulein
Boveri-daughter of his friend Theodor Boveri,
the zoologist-and others, it wouIld appear that
his department was well organized, and he had
This was a serious
He took his diploma in
later he followed
In 1875, at
In 1876, after a year
He was thoroughly at
Canad. M. A. J.
Jan. 1946, vol. 54 J
MEN AND BOOKS: WILHELM CONRAD RONTGEN
necessity of teaching, which appealed to him
less as the years passed.
especially hunting and
Each year he took holidays in the
Alps-for example at Pontresina-and also at
In later life he acquired a hunting
lodge at Weilheim in the Bavarian Alps, which
Some consider that, even if Rontgen had not
discovered the x-rays, he would have been one
of the greatest scientists
century, but there are various views on this
I have read
papers, but am not qualified to
Of his previous work, especially nota-
ble were his experiments with Kundt at Strass-
burg on the electromagnetic rotation of the
plane of polarization of light in gases.
had attempted to demonstrate this phenomenon,
written on the absorption of heat in water
vapour, the compressibility of liquids and solids,
and the production of magnetic effects in a
dielectric-the latter investigation being ranked
by him as equally important as his disco4ery
of the x-rays.
He thus discovered the R6ntgen
current, which led later to the theories
Lorentz and of relativity.
his career he wrote many papers dealing with
crystals, which probably influenced later in-
vestigators, and especially von Laue, Friedrich
and Knipping in their determination of the
passing note that in 1877 Rontgen contributed
a short paper to Nature entitled "A Telephonic
THE DISCOVERY OF X-RAYS
It was in this favourable environment that
Rontgen started to work on cathode rays in
late October 1895.
He used a Ruhmkorff in-
been working with Lenard tubes. which were
covered with black paper, in which a window
was cut for the passage of the cathode rays.
Fluorescent screens were the usual method of
testing for the cathode rays even at that time.
At a late hour on Friday, November 8, when
were no assistants in the laboratory,
Rontgen was testing the density of the black
cover-without a window-fitted over a Hittorf-
As he told an interviewer, the
shield was impervious to any light known.
barium platino-cyanide which lay on a bench
It seemed improbable that the effect
could have been produced by cathode rays as
their nature was then understood; but in order
to exclude them he experimented with a scieen
at & greater distance than the known range of
interrupt the rays by various bodies which
He spent much time
of the nineteenth
a number of his other
is worthy of
He had also
The next~step was to
would have been quite opaque to cathode rays.
In this way he deduced that he was dealing
with a new kind of radiation, the penetrating
power of which varied roughly with the density
of the interrupting body.
the interrupting body, he saw the shadows of
the bones upon the screen.
to replace the screen by a photographic plate.
The first x-ray photograph-frequently repro-
duced since then-was that of Mrs. Rontgen's
There followed seven weeks of intensive work,
during the early part of which R6ntgen slept
and ate in his laboratory.
wife, he was morose and abstracted, and resented
the intrusion of mundane matters.
ber 28 he presented to the President of the
Physikalisch-Medizinische Geseltschaft of Wurz-
burg his first written report on the discovery.
This he termed a "Preliminary Communication"
Rontgen read this report before a meeting of the
Society, but this statement is incorrect.
to the Christmas season there were no meetings.
Because of its importance, however, the report
was accepted for immediate publication in the
Proceedings (Sitzungsberichte), and it was printed
a few days later.
The report was entitled "On
a New Kind of Rays" (Eine neue Art
On January 6 the news was cabled
from London to the whole world, and the
reaction was immediate.
that Rontgen made no oral communication on
the subject until January 23, when he addressed
the Physikalisch-Medizinische Gesellschaft with
von Koelliker in the Chair.
In his Preliminary Communication Rontgen
presented the subject already fully fledged.
He proposed to call the new rays "X-rays" in
occurs whatever side of the test paper is turned
to the tube, even up to a distance of 2 metres.
He classified various substances according to
their transparency, and he distinguished between
the two types of glass.
1.5 mm. is practically opaque.
vestigated the problem of refraction of the rays,
using mica prisms containing water or carbon
bisulphide, and also prisms made
rubber or aluminium.
be slight deviations.
Regular reflection does not take
Bodies behave to the x-rays as turbid
media do towards light.
x-rays move with the same velocity in
He then compared the x-rays with cathode
Air absorbs a far smaller fraction of the
x-rays than of the cathode rays.
istic of the cathode rays is that they can be
deflected by a magnet, and he stated that he
had made many unsuccessful attempts to show
deflection of the x-rays by this method.
follows the important
x-rays proceed from the spot where the cathode
When his hand was
The next step was
According to his
It is often said that
It should be noted
Lead in a thickness of
He then in-
He thought there might
Lenses he found to have
He considered that
ILEN AND BOOKS:
WILHELM CONRRAD RONTGEN
rCanad. M. A. J.
[Jan. 1946, vol. 54
rays strike the glass wall of the tube.
cathode rays are deflected by a magnet, it is
observed that the x-rays proceed from another
Hence, since x-rays cannot be deflected,
they cannot be identical with cathode
The production does not take place in glass
alone, but also in alumiinium.
Rontgen then mentioned some of the shadow-
pictures which he had observed or photographed.
Amongst the best known are the set of weights
in a closed wooden box; the human hand; the
shadow of his laboratory door: a compass in
which the magnetic needle was entirely enclosed
by metal; and a piece of metal whose lack of
homogeneity became noticeable by means of
This photograph of a specimen of
metal is the source of all our uses for x-rays in
tentative suggestion that x-rays are longitudinal
vibrations in the ether....
A word should be said regarding the sug-
gestion, frequently made, that the discovery
America, who had
students at the time, stated that the discovery
was made because Rontgen happened to mark
the page of a book which he was reading by
placing a metal key between the pages.
accident also he happened to lay this book on
a photographic plate.
Later, when he developed
the plate, presto, there was the shadow of the
Perhaps this story demands a little too
much of the element of coincidence.
also be remembered that Middleton was only
a student, and even Rontgen's assistants did
not know what he was searching for.
months after discovery MacKenzie Davidson
asked Rontgen what he was doing with the
Hittorf tube when he made the discovery.
It seems just to conclude that
Rontgen knew what he was looking for, though
he could hardly have foreseen its properties.
At the historic lecture on January 23 to which
I have already referred Rontgen described his
through his laboratory door.
lecture Rontgen took an x-ray photograph of
the hand of the chairman, von Koelliker, and
the latter proposed that in future the rays
should be called "R6ntgen's rays".
REACTION TO THE DISCOVERY IN THE
SCIENTIFIC AND SOCIAL WORLDS
The reaction to the discoveru was immediate.
The news leaked out to the Vienna Presse, from
which it was copied by other papers, including
the London Standard.
world cable was sent on January 6.
appeared in the American Press on January 8.
The Saturday Review had a detailed description
on January 11, L'Illustration on January 25;
and the Literary Digest on the same day.
first mention of the discovery which I have
-been able to find in the British or American
later Middleton in
At the end of the
From the Standard the
Press occurred in The Lancet.
of this journal
leader on January 11 it treated the whole matter
quent to the confirmation by Mr. A. A. Camp-
bell Swiiiton of the practicability of obtaining
an x-ray photograph of the human hand, this
journal unbent to the extent of saying "the
possibility of the application of this discovery
as an aid in medical and surgical practice is a
agreed that the discovery had been completely
confirmed, and mentioned with apparent grati-
fication that "the application of this remarkable
phenomenon to the discovery of bullets and
already been made, with very promising results".
The British Medical Journal, having had the
advantage of a week's careful consideration in
article by Professor Arthur Schuster of Man-
chester on January 18.
seen x-ray photographs which Rontgen had sent
him, and he had no hesitation in saying that a
most important discovery had been made.
also said that it was not necessary to enter into
"the many possible medical applications which
this photograph opens out".
the British Medical Journal was able to an-
nounce, in a long and most enthusiastic leader,
that Professor Lannelongue of the Trousseau
Hospital, assisted by Oudin and Barthelemy,
had already x-rayed his cases, and had sub-
mitted to the Academy several negatives of
human limbs, one showing a diseased femur,
and another tuberculous dactylitis.
of this leader was emphatic that the rays would
prove valuable in the diagnosis
fractures and internal lesions generally, but he
regretted that they could not be focused by
Nature announced the discovery
translation of the Preliminary Communication.
The New York Medical Record passed from a
state of suspended animation on February 1 to
of the most
After a brief latent period all
journals were most enthusiastic.
There appears to have been considerable mis-
conception in the early weeks regarding the
real possibilities and uses of x-rays.
read very many articles which appeared during
these first few months, and most of them use
the term "photography", which is strictly a
By March 10 Mr. Justice Wills
was suggesting the term "scotography", and a
few days later the British Medical Journal had
a leader under the heading Wanted a Name:
gested, but the writer found "radiography" and
suggested "kathograph" and "kathography".
There were many other suggestions, but for the
time being the new procedure remained as much
a Dickensian joke.
A week later, subse-
By the 25th
of bone has
a precipitate decision, published an
Professor Schuster had
By February 1
I said previously, the
it printed the
a trifle vague.
Canad. M. A. J. l
Jan. 1946, vol. 54 ]
MEN AND BOOKS: WILHELM CONRAD RONTGEN
meat for the orthodox photographer as for the
Sensible suggestions very soon ap-
peared to the effect that much technical skill
was required, and that the actual exposures
should be performed by experts.
common misconception in all circles arose out
of the fact that few understood the real possi-
bilities of x-rays in rendering practicable the
takings of an x-ray film with a relatively short
exposure, and that
subsequently shortened by improvements
At that time many x-rays of hands
were taken with exposures of a few minutes.
appeared pointing out that penetration could
be obtained by other types of rays.
print from a negative made by these emanations
that the exposure was three and a half weeks
rather altered the possibilities of the method in
the domain of medicine.
It would seem that the attitude of the popular
Press had much influence on the future develop-
of the new methods.
countries had comments and jokes on the x-rays,
and these served to make people interested, and
stimulated them to ask their physicians
These comments often illustrate the miscon-
ceptions to which I have referred.
early in 1896 a photographer sent a customer
an x-ray picture of a needle embedded in a
He received the following reply:
"Photograms received, very tame.
sensational ones, such as interior of the belly,
backbones, brains, liver, kidneys, head, lungs,
By June a Miss Willard, a prominent
temperance worker in the United States, was
saying: "I believe the x-rays are going to do
much for the temperance cause.
drunkards and cigarette smokers can be shown
the steady deterioration of their systems, which
follows the practice-and seeing is believing!"
There was obviously a belief that some sort of
developed, and a progressive London firm even
advertised x-ray-proof underclothing.
semblyman from New Jersey actually introduced
on February 19, 1896, a bill into the House at
Trenton, N.Y., "prohibiting the use of x-rays
in opera glasses in theatres".
is expressed in the delightful cartoon in Punch
of Miarch 7, 1896.
APPLICATIONS OF X-RAYS
As has already been mentioned,
x-ray photograph of the human body taken in
this country by Rontgen's method was made by
A. Campbell Swinton and
Stanton in the second week of January 1896.
The exposure was four and
According to Pullin, Swinton's first x-ray of the
human hand was made on January 7, the day
exposure might be
Mr. Lascelles-Scott sent to The Times
as he called it.
were in doubt.
By this means
x-ray apparatus might be
The same idea
IN THE MEDICAL
a half minutes.
after the announcement of the discovery by
Rontgen, and the exposure was twenty minutes.
It was reproduced in Nature on January 23,
was demonstrated at the Physical Society on
January 24, and on February 13 at a lecture
before the London Camera Club.
25 Swinton had announced that lantern slides
of this x-ray were available, and shortly after-
wards he opened a laboratory for x-ray work in
Vienna had obtained x-rays of gall-stones in the
that English investigators must not be behind
their co-workers abroad in the practical appli-
cation of the discovery.
Edinburgh showed a series of x-rays on Febru-
One of the first surgical applications to
be reported was that of
wrist, treated and written up by Sir Robert
Joines and Sir Oliver Lodge.
Sydney Rowland, of St. Bartholomew's Hos-
pital, gave a demonstration before the Medical
Society of London.
Hall Edwards in Birming-
ham had localized a needle and a bullet by
means of the x-rays; he also produced an x-ray
Kenzie Davidson had also carried out similar
work by the middle of February.
Thompson, Oliver Lodge, Schuster and other
great physicists were taking much interest in
the application of the method to medicine, and
President of the Rontgen Society.
most energetic of the early British workers was
Dr. John MacIntyre of Glasgow, who was the
pioneer of fluoroscopy by means of his crypto-
In addition to his abundant work on
the bony structure of the limbs, he obtained
distinct shadows of the vertebral column and
By April for his cryptoscope he was using
mended for this purpose by Edison after tests on
eighteen hundred substances.
probably used the stereoscopic screen.
amining the antrum of Highmore Maclntyre
tried putting small x-ray tubes in the mouth,
and the screen outside.
to the degree of hardness of his tubes, and he
order to obtain a correct vacuum.
out that a tube can be restored to its correct
condition by the use of a Bunsen burner.
November 1896 MacIntyre was the
use a succession of x-ray pictures of moving
objects, viz. a frog's leg in motion, and he was
also the first to devise the method of photo-
graphing the fluoroscopic screen which is now
used in miniature radiography.
to obtain an x-ray with a single interruption-
he had indeed done this in April-and he was
therefore the founder of x-ray cinematography.
During the year 1896 alone MacIntyre published
eighteen papers on x-rays.
chose potassium platino-cyanide
1 Neusser in
in the urinary
Dawson Turner in
a bullet in
On February 24
a vertebral column.
At Aberdeen Mac-
One of the
He paid great attention
He was able
Sir Herbert Jackson