LEARNING TO SEE INSIDE THE BODY
BY Connie Mitchell
William Röntgen produced the first X-ray of a human body in 1895. Photo courtesy of Science Photo Library.
The very first X-ray image is a blurry, ghostlike view of a woman’s left hand, two sizable wedding rings visible on her third finger. Using his wife as his test subject, German physicist Wilhelm Röntgen used the power of the X-ray to gaze at bones beneath his wife’s skin, something he couldn’t have done before without an incision. Six years later, Röntgen won the 1901 Nobel Prize in Physics. The practice of medicine had changed forever.
The early years
In 1896, just a month after the first X-ray became public, Charles Curtman, an analytical chemist at the Mallinckrodt Chemical Co. and instructor at Missouri Medical College, the predecessor to Washington University School of Medicine, delivered a lecture about the new technology to a packed auditorium of physicians, chemists and alumni. Clearly, the medical world was sitting up and taking notice of Rontgen’s wondrous new discovery.
The following year, the British Institute of Radiology was established, now the oldest radiological society in the world. Physicians with access to the new technology looked at fuzzy images developed on glass plates until film was introduced in 1918. During the early 20th century, the new ability to image bones was called roentgenology, in homage to Röntgen. Academic medical centers began to create roentgenology departments, and even in the earliest days of this nascent field of medicine, physicians and scientists began to explore the possibilities for using X-rays in treatment as well as diagnosis.