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Tales of Yore

Wilhelm Conrad Röntgen: Finding X

Sen, Mrittika1,2; Honavar, Santosh G1

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Indian Journal of Ophthalmology: October 2021 - Volume 69 - Issue 10 - p 2570-2572
doi: 10.4103/ijo.IJO_2321_21
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Name the greatest of all inventors. Accident.” – Mark Twain

Once upon a time there lived a man, in Würzburg, who discovered the magical rays that would go on to change the face of medicine! It was the 19th century, the golden era, the age of scientists and inventors, the epoch of experiments and discoveries. The world was witnessing powerful miracles – Dalton had put forth his atomic theory (1808), Faraday had invented the dynamo (1831), Mendeleev had prepared the Periodic Table, Darwin’s voyage had started, Simpson had used chloroform for surgeries (1847), Snow had correlated cholera to water (1854), Pasteur had fixated on microorganisms for diseases, Lister chipped in with carbolic acid (1865), and Benz (car, 1885) and Bell (telephone, 1876) were already making the world a smaller place. The stage was set for the man to emerge from the shadows and etch his name in history.

Wilhelm Röntgen was born in the small town of Lennep in Germany on March 27, 1845. When he was three, his family moved to the Netherlands. A nature lover since he was a boy, he showed an unusual aptitude for mechanical contrivances.[23] In 1862, he was expelled from a technical school in Utrecht, albeit unfairly, for a caricature of a teacher that was made by another pupil. Unable to pursue physics as a regular student in the University, he cleared an examination to enter the Federal Polytechnic Institute at Zurich as a student of mechanical engineering.[234] He completed his PhD in 1869 and published his first paper on specific heat of gases. He also worked on thermal conductivity of crystals, electrical characteristics of quartz, influence of pressure on refractive indices of fluids, the modification of the planes of polarized light by electromagnetic influences, variations in the functions of the temperature, the compressibility of water and other fluids, and the phenomena accompanying the spreading of oil drops on water. He became the professor of physics in Strasbourg University (1876), Chair of Physics at the University of Giessen, and moved to the University of Würzburg in 1888.[35] He finally settled in Germany as the Chair of Physics in the University of Munich in 1900.[24]

Röntgen married Anna Bertha Ludwig, and while they never had children of their own, they adopted Anna’s brother’s daughter. The family took hiking trips and his friends remember him as “forever moving about” with his box camera and black hood.[4] Both his wife and his passion for photography would play in a titular role in his Nobel winning work.[4]

On November 8, 1895, as Röntgen sat working in his lab with a cathode ray tube developed by and borrowed from another physicist, Philip Lennard, he noticed that a coated platinobarium screen, kept far from the covered cathode tube in his lab, was glowing.[6] The phenomenon had been noticed before. Arthur Goodspeed, an American physicist, had observed that two coins that he had left on a photographic plate near a Crookes tube had left mysterious circles on the developed plates.[4] Nikola Tesla, another genius, had experimented with the Crookes tube and had invented his own vacuum tube in 1894 to produce X-rays, although not named at that time.[7]

However, Röntgen followed-up this unusual finding. “I didn’t think, I investigated,” his words leave a lasting impression, much like his “shadow pictures,” as he liked to call the images produced by his mysterious rays.[8] Even though this was a “Eureka” moment, his reaction was in stark contrast to Archimedes’! He kept his discovery a secret, withdrew himself to his lab for nearly 6 weeks, only coming out during meals, studying the nature and properties of these rays. His wife confessed that it was a “dreadful time” for her. When she persistently pressed him, all Röntgen could say was that if people knew what he was doing, “they would say, ‘Röntgen must have gone mad’.”[8] Röntgen himself believed that he was a “victim of deception. He put wood, paper notebooks, nearly 1000 books in their path, but nothing could stop these rays. When he put his own hand in the path, he realized that he could see the bones.[89] He developed films of wooden spool and could photograph the wire inside; he could read the direction of compass enclosed in a metal case.[1011] On December 22, 1895, he placed his wife, Anna Bertha’s hand on the photographic plate and let the rays pass through it. What resulted was one of the most famous photos in the world, the bones of Bertha’s hand with her wedding ring floating around her finger [Fig. 1].[8] It became clear to him that these newly discovered rays could pass through the human flesh but not high density materials like bone or lead. Röntgen, not knowing their exact nature, called them, “X-rays,” the variable for the “unknown.”[11]

Figure 1
Figure 1:
Röntgen’s most famous radiographs – the X-ray of his wife Anna’s hand with a ring[12]

Now the devil will be to pay,” he said to his wife and after having finally convinced himself, at the end of December 1985, he revealed his discovery in his paper, “On a New Kind of Rays” in the Proceedings of the Würzburg Physico-Medical Society.[9] The initial response was exactly what Röntgen had forseen. The London Standard that carried the first report ended the article with the words, “The Presse assures its readers that there is no joke or humbug in the matter. It is a serious discovery by a serious German Professor.” Many scientists were bewildered, while others were more convinced that it was practical joke of some nature. A physics professor and one of Röntgen’s friend, Otto Lummer, summed up the reaction, “Röntgen has otherwise always been a sensible fellow, and it’s not carnival season yet.”[8] However, it was not long before the skepticism was replaced by wonder and excitement because of two reasons. First, almost all the laboratories had the cathode tubes to reproduce the experiment, and second, the excellent evidence that Röntgen had carefully collected, his “X-ray photographs”! By mid-January 1896, X-rays had taken the world by storm. They inspired poems, cartoons, stories, and advertisements. Carnivals and fairs had X-ray booths for people to have their body imaged. Shoe stores started using X-rays for determining the size of fit. Thomas Edison developed a handheld fluoroscope. For the medical fraternity, it was nothing short of a miracle. In February 1896, Edwin Brant Frost used it for the first time to diagnose Colles’ fracture.[13] Around the same time, Emil Grubbe used it to irradiate a woman with recurrent breast cancer.[13]

X-rays also penetrated ophthalmology. Dr Francis Henry Williams used them to locate a piece of copper foreign body in a patient’s eye. For the detection of intraocular and orbital foreign bodies using X-rays, the stereoscopic and geometric methods were developed. Dr Eugene W. Caldwell described a good position to image the orbit and paranasal sinuses (1906) and Charles H. Waters described the position for imaging the orbital floor, the frontal, maxillary, and ethmoidal sinus (1915), the Caldwell and the Waters’ views, respectively.[8] For the visualization of optic nerve, the methods evolved over the years including Rhese’s technique of imaging the ethmoids, Goalwin’s “cap” method, Pfeiffer’s head rest, and the more recent “head units” with protractors.[14] Orbital imaging is an indispensable tool with each modality having specific indications. X-rays were certainly the precursor to CT, MRI, and ultrasound, which are more widely used now. They paved the way for the discovery of electron by Thomson (1897), radioactivity by Bacquerel (1896), and radium and polonium by the Curies (1898).

It is interesting that Tesla was in fact the first to produce an X-ray image using his vacuum tube. He attempted to image Mark Twain, but instead ended up with images of only the screws of the camera lens. He later obtained images of the human body, calling them shadowgrams. Sadly, his laboratory burnt down in March 1895, resulting in loss of a significant amount of his work. Tesla gave full credit to Röntgen for his work and expressed his regret of not having comprehended the implications of his experiments. He sent some of his images to Röntgen shortly after his work was published. Röntgen’s reply marked the mutual respect of the men of science working for a better cause – ”Dear Sir! You have surprised me tremendously with the beautiful photographs of wonderful discharges and I tell you thank you very much for that. If only I knew how you make such things! With the expression of special respect I remain yours devoted, W. C. Roentgen” [Fig. 2]. Tesla described some of the clinical benefits of X-rays – determination of foreign bodies, diagnosis of lung diseases, but at the same time, he was among the few who commented on the biological hazards of the unchecked use of X-rays.[7]

Figure 2
Figure 2:
Röntgen’s letter to Tesla on seeing the radiographs taken by Tesla[7]

Röntgen was awarded the first Nobel Prize in Physics in 1901. The former unit of radiation exposure (R), the 111th element (roentgenium, an artificially produced radioactive element) and streets bear his name. However, ironically, he never patented his discovery. He is remembered as a simple man by his family and friends, for his courteous and amiable nature. He donated his Nobel Prize money to his University and nearly went bankrupt after World War I. He succumbed to intestinal carcinoma on February 10, 1923 at Munich.[213]

Kircher, a predecessor of Röntgen, rightly remarked, “Nature often allows amazing miracles to be produced which originate from the most ordinary observations and which are, however, recognised only by those who are equipped with sagacity and research acumen, and who consult experience, the teacher of everything.”[9] Wilhelm Röntgen’s contribution opened up countless possibilities, saved innumerable lives, and proved that one should not stop at “what” but find the answers to “why, where, when and how?”

You can’t depend on your eyes when your imagination is out of focus.” – Mark Twain

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Conflicts of interest

There are no conflicts of interest.


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