One night, Wilhelm Röntgen discovered a phenomenon completely by chance that went on to become a specialized medical discipline that would help millions of patients worldwide.
Like most physicists of his day, Röntgen was studying electric discharges in glass vacuum tubes...
He would use photography to document his findings.
Two days before Christmas in 1895, he took an X-ray of the hand of his wife, Anna Bertha.
And radiology was born.
Shortly before New Year’s Eve in 1895, Röntgen submitted his manuscript for publication to the secretary of the Physics and Medical Society in Würzburg.
In early January 1986, he received the prints.
He sent them, along with nine X-ray images, to some of his physics colleagues in Europe.
The famous physicist Lord Kelvin replied stating that he had looked at the images “with great interest”.
However, he expressed some doubt over their authenticity.
One physicist believed that he had been “told a fairy tale.”
The Austrian newspaper ‘Die Presse’ is the first to report on the new rays on 5 January 1896. Journalists get carried away by ‘fantastical future speculations à la Jules Verne’: the diagnosis of bone fractures, the detection of foreign bodies, and cross-sectional images of the human body. These would all later become reality.
Alongside the X-ray mania during these early days, scientists begin to ask questions. What type of matter can be penetrated by X-rays, and what cannot?
The first X-ray facilities in Germany, England, France and the U.S. open in the spring of 1896.
The patient stands in front of the X-ray tubes for the procedure.
The generator produces the required high tension of several thousand volts to operate the tubes.
The doctor sits in front of the patient. The fluorescent screen allows him to view the X-rays in the darkened room.
In addition to bone fractures, impalpable foreign bodies can now be rendered visible. This is useful for a surgeon performing an operation to remove a foreign body.
Images of soft body parts, such as organs and vessels, cannot be produced with X-rays. The rays pass through them with barely any resistance. It is not until contrast agents are invented that such images become possible.
The quality of the X-ray tubes is also improved.
Doctors can regulate the type and amount of X-rays in a consistent and reproducible manner.
Is shielding the solution?
X-rays cannot penetrate lead.
Much of the protective clothing at this time resembles suits of armour.
The severity of the skin damage depends on the amount of X-rays it receives. The first instruments for measuring the amount of X-rays absorbed by the body significantly help reduce radiation damage in the clinics.
Various methods for measuring X-rays are tested.
But there is still a long way to go before a standardised system for measuring the amount and type of X-rays is established.
World War I results in a devastating loss of over 9 million lives.
Additional mobile X-ray machines and medical staff are needed in the field hospitals.
The X-ray equipment is mobilised and transported to the field hospitals in X-ray wagons.
The experiences and knowledge acquired from field hospitals are collected and analyzed in many books. The resulting radiology atlases contain impressive contemporary documents.
The patients must therefore be protected. Facial skin diseases are also treated with X-rays. The patients wear lead masks to protect the rest of the face.
Different masks are worn depending on which part of the face is to be treated.
The lead masks are heavy. This one weighs 8 kg.
Any technology can be used as a weapon.
Knowledge about the treatment of uterine cancer with X-rays is exploited to perform abortions and forced sterilisations during the Nazi era.
For deeper tumours, higher-energy or ‘hard’ beams are required. These can penetrate more deeply into the body.
The tubes and conduit cables in later radiation therapy machines are sheathed for radiation and high voltage protection.
Tuberculosis can be detected on an X-ray of the lungs before it progresses to a contagious stage.
Routine X-ray examinations, or mass screenings, become mandatory for the population. This regular monitoring is a key factor in reducing the incidence of tuberculosis.
X-ray buses travel to town squares and schoolyards in the countryside. While the mass screening programme is successful, there is still a risk of tumours.
Mass screening is discontinued in the 1980s.
The invention of computed tomography is a major advance. With CT, the X-ray tubes rotate around the patient. A detector on the opposite side measures the oncoming X-rays. The images are calculated from the attenuation patterns.
This procedure allows cross-sectional images of the body to be created without superimposition. Soft body parts can be well visualized. Images of the brain can also be obtained for the first time.
A suspected brain tumour is confirmed in the first patient to undergo CT.
Continuous images through the body can now be produced, such as on this CT image of the torso.
Computed tomography and magnetic resonance tomography, along with increasingly sophisticated image processing, allow a more highly detailed view into the human body.
The technology continues to advance. The smallest brain structures and even brain activity can now be imaged.
Copyright by Deutsches Röntgen Museum.