These days one cannot imagine medicine without radiology – the use of x-rays helps various healthcare specialists to determine their patients conditions and develop effective treatment plans. Today, we will go back to where it all started – to the laboratory of German scientist, Dr. Wilhelm Roentgen.
In 1895, he was conducting experiments with vacuum tubes which are essentially glass tubes with some air being evacuated. Roentgen was trying to establish how high-volume electricity could pass through the glass. The discovery of x-rays occurred accidentally, when one day, leaving his workplace, he covered the tube with black cardboard and noticed a faint glow coming from another object in the room (most likely, a screen covered in barium platinocyanide). He later noted that the same effect could be achieved with other materials, including paper. He concluded that the energy produced by the electrodes in the tube could pass through the glass and the cupboard causing in some external objects a reaction in the form of the fluorescent light.
Instead of immediately announcing his discovery, Roentgen began systematically experiment with the new rays, which he named “x-rays” from “x” – the mathematical symbol for the unknown. For instance, he noticed that some materials allowed the rays to pass through while others not. Roentgen also observed that when he placed his hand between the tube and the barium platinocyanide-coated paper, he could see his bones moving on the papers surface. Later, he produced a static image of his wife’s hand: it was the first photograph of a body part made with the use of x-rays. This marked the beginning of the current medical application of the technology.
Several weeks after his discovery, Roentgen published an article describing the properties of x-rays he had managed to observe. The paper, originally written in German, was soon translated into English, and scientists from other countries started to conduct their own experiments. Skeptical at first, they quickly realized that x-rays could be successfully used as a diagnostic tool in medicine. For instance, in 1897, radiology was employed to find bullets and broken bones inside wounded soldiers during the Balkan war. Only some time later, in 1898, it was discovered that unlimited exposure to x-rays could cause biological damage to a human body. After that, researchers started to establish safety protocols for the use of radiology.
Although working with x-rays demands extreme caution, this discovery enormously advanced medicine, allowing non-invasive screening of various conditions. Therefore, it is not surprising that in 1901 Roentgen received a Nobel Prize for his contribution to science.