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35. Rontgen: Invisible Rays that Save Lives


THE NEW YEAR of 1986 has dawned, and the postholiday party at the home of Franz Exner was a gay one. The Professor of Physics at the University of Vienna looked about to see that his guests were well cared for then turned to a young colleague, phycisist Ernst Lecher, and said: “You’ll be interested to know that I have just received a most remarkable pamphlet from my good friend, Professor Rontgen, in Wurzburg. You remember, we used to work together in Professor Kundt’s laboratory. It seems that Professor Rontgen has discovered a remarkable new ray. You can’t see it – but it passes right through wood, paper, and almost anything. You can photograph weights in a box without opening the lid. You even can se the bones in your own hand. Here, let me show you the photographs he sent along…”

Ernst Lecher looked at the photos; read a few lines from the little pamphlet which bore the title: On A New Kind of Rays. Excitedly, he called to his father, who was standing near by. Z.K. Lecher, the father, was editor of the Vienna Presse. At first astounded, he soon recovered his aplomb and recognized the ingredients for a great news story.

The story appeared on the front page of the Presse, Sunday, January 5, 1986. To the facts se forth in Professor Rontgen’s pamphlet, the editor added a few enthusiastic conjectures of his own. He predicted many possible uses for these mysterious, newly discovered “x-rays,” as they were called. He even contended that they might find a place in medicine, perhaps in diagnosis of diseases and in treatment of injures of bones.

The Vienna representative of the London Daily Chronicle cabled the story to his paper, wherein it appeared the following day. The Frankfurter Zeitung, the Paris Matin, and many others soon had the story as did New York newspapers. By the second week in January, leading medical journals world-wide were commenting on the possibilities of x-rays, Physicians, physicists, and photographers were repeating Rontgen’s experiments, and devising new ones. Within four days after arrival of the news in the United States, x-rays has been employed by a physician to locate a bullet lodged in a patient’s hand.

Thus in a few weeks was Wilhelm Conrad Rontgen, Professor of Physics, Professor of Physics, Director of the Physical Institute, and Rector of the University of Wurzburg, Germany, catapulted from the semiobscure, celebrity. It came about because his research-trained mind demanded that he look into the cause of what at first seemed a minor laboratory curiosity.

Professor Rontgen had first observed the phenomenon he named x-rays, on Friday, November 8, 1895. Over the week end, he took advantage of absence of students to reconfirm his findings. Then came weeks of feverish experimentation and writing of notes on findings. Rontgen did not tell students or fellow teachers of his experiments for fear they would think him out of his mine: rays that could penetrate flesh, paper, wood, most metals; that could cause a screen coated with barium platinocyanide to fluoresce, even in the next room, with the door closed! Rontgen himself could hardly cause a screen coated with barium platinocyanide to fluoresce, even in the nest, with the door closed! Rontgen himself could hardly believe his eyes. Cathode rays created in the Hittorf-Crookes tube he was using, would cause fluorescence if the screen were held only a few centimeters from the tube. When the tube was covered with a black cardboard mask, such as he was now using, cathode rays were shut in, just as where visible light rays. But the x-rays-they penetrated wood; they penetrated flesh, showing bones clearly as darker shadows; they exposed photographic plates that were securely protected from visible light. Here, indeed, was a phenomenon unheard of before. Visible light. Here, indeed, was a phenomenon unheard of before.

Convinced at last that this observations were sound, proved by repeated experimentation, Rontgen realized the need for immediate publication. Just after Christmas, he presented his manuscript to the secretary of the Wurzburg Physical Medical Society. It was published in the last pages of the year’s final issue of the Sitzungsberichte der Physikalisch-Medizinischen, Gesellschaft zu Wurzburg. On New Year’s Day, 1986, Professor Rontgen mailed reprints, together with prints of his photographs, to a number of his physicist friends. Among them was Professor Exner of Vienna.

The fame that was about to come to Professor Rontgen in his fiftieth year of life was achieved easily. Born March 27, 1845, in the German town of Lennep in the Ruhr valley, the son of a textile merchant, Wilhelm Conrad Rontgen grew up in Apeldoorn, Holland, to which city his parents had moved when he was three years old. An only child, his schooling was somewhat erratic. He demonstrated an ability for making mechanical gadgets, and had no difficulty with schoolwork until the prank of a schoolmate got him into trouble. Refusal to reveal the name of the offender resulted in Rontgen’s expulsion without being admitted to examinations so necessary to accreditation for higher education. Rontgen was allowed to study, without credit, at the University of Utrecht, and was accepted at the Polytechnical School at Zurich, Switzerland, from which he received a degree in mechanical engineering, August 6, 1868. Strangely enough, Rontgen, the great experimental physicist, never had a basic college course in physics.

Staying on at the Polytechnical School in Zurich after graduation, Rontgen took some additional courses, and attracted the attention of August Kundt, professor of physics. After a year in Kundt’s laboratories, Rontgen submitted a thesis on Studies on Gases to the University of Zurich, and on June 22, 1869, received a doctor of philosophy degree from that institution. In Zurich, too, he met Bertha Ludwig, whom he married in 1872.

Rontgen’s relations with Kundt were such that when, in 1870, the professor was called to the chair of physics at the University of Wurzburg, he took Rontgen along as his assistant. At Wurzburg, Rontgen met with double disappointment: first, the surroundings of the physics laboratories were poor, and the equipment meager; second, Rontgen was denied appointment as Privatdozent, or unpaid instructor(first step in the academic ladder) because of lack of the diploma denied him when he was expelled from preparatory school.

However, in 1872, a few months after Rontgen’s marriage, Kundt took his assistant with him to the newly reorganized Kaiser-Wilhelm’s University at Strassburg. In this new and broader minded university, Rontgen, after two years of hard work, was appointed a Privatdozent equaled that of teaching. Consequent to investigations he had conducted with Kundt, Rontgen was offered a full professorship in physics and mathematics at the Agricultural Academy in honenheim. Due to inadequate equipment and facilities there, Rontgen was happy to return to Strassburg a year and half later to accept appointment as an associate professor.

Meantime, Rontgen was developing a remarkable ability for conducting research, and for measurement of minute quantities of substances and of changes in their temperature due to altered physical conditions. His publications began to appear regularly in leading journals on physics. In 1879, friends, including von Helmholtz, recommended Rontgen for the chair of physics at the University of Giessen. In 1880, a new physics building was built there, and Rontgen headed the institute.

Rontgen’s interests were rapidly turning to problems of electricity. In 1888, his reputation was enhanced by experiments that proved and measured magnetic effects produced when a glass plate, or other suitable medium, was moved between two electrically charged condenser plates.

Rontgen received several flattering invitations to take professor ships in physics at other universities, including Jena, and Utrecht(where he had once been denied enrollment as a regular student). Thse offers he declined; but when, in 1888, the University of Wurzburg (which had denied him Priatdozent) offered him the post of professor of physics and director of the newly built physical institute, Rontgen could not resist. The Rontgens returned to Wurzburg. Six years later, Rontgen was elected Rector of the University – its highest office.

As he reached his fiftieth year, Rontgen was a typical successful professor in a large university. His publications had made him well known among his colleagues. His abilities as researcher and teacher were recognized by his university, and flattering offers came from others; but the Rontgens preferred Wurzburg. It was in this setting that Rontgen, in 1895, became interested in cathode rays, and in the work that had been done on them by Hertz, Lenard, Hittorf, and Crookes. Rontgen secured several types of cathode ray tubes, a Ruhmkorff induction coil, a Depres interrupter, and other apparatus, including a Raps vacuum pump. Repeating experiments of his colleagues with cathode rays, Rontgen confirmed them, and made some leagues with cathode rays, Rontgen confirmed them, and made some additional observations: the rays from the tubes darkened photographic plates, and they produced fluorescence in certain salts, notably, barium platinocyanide.

Working alone, as was his habit, on the afternoon or November 8, 1895, he had covered a tube completely with black cardboard. Wishing to test the opacity of the cover, he darkened the room. It was then that he discovered the screen, across the room, fluorescing. Unbelieving, Rontgen searched for an overlooked light source. Cathode rays could not be the cause of fluorescence. He checked and rechecked his experiments; he hardly took time to eat and sleep. This must be a new kind of ray – no known rays would penetrate opaque substances so readily; nor would they travel in a straight line, as did those produced in his experiments. The new rays also differed from cathode rays in that they were not deflected by a magnetic field. To them, Rontgen attached the mathematician’s symbol for the unknown: he thought of them as x-rays; and as such, he reported them in his paper, On a New Kind of Rays.

Reactions were not long in coming. In addition to newspapers and medical journal reports, electrical, photographic, and general interest publications carried articles of varying reliability. From physicists and other scientists came congratulations, in the main; and a few disagreements, as well as insubstantial claims to priority. On January 13, 1896, Rontgen was called to Berlin to demonstrate his apparatus before the Emperor, Wilhelm II, and his guests. The Emperor decorated Rontgen with the Prussian Order of the Crown, II Class.

Meantime, Rontgen’s colleagues at Wurzburg were urging him to reveal his discovery to them. This event took place in the auditorium of Rontgen’s own institute, the night of January 23, 1896. Every seat in the auditorium was filled. After explaining his experiments and demonstrating various properties of x-rays, Rontgen invited Albert von Kolliker, famous anatomist at the University, to have his hand photographed. Von Kolliker agreed, and within a short time an excellent photograph, revealing bones flesh, and a ring in graduated shadows, was shown to the audience. Von Kolliker praised Rontgen’s work as of the greatest significance, and suggested that the new force be designated “Rontgen rays.” He also conjectured as to the possibility of photographing other structures of the body. Rontgen, who himself was never to use the term, Rontgen rays, expressed his willingness to give the benefit of his experience to anyone wishing to carry on further research in medical institutions. He refused to apply for patents.

Within the first year, experimenters learned to respect x-rays, and that they are agents of destruction and of death as well as being useful in diagnosis and in therapy. Physicians learned to shield themselves, as well as their patients, from unwanted effects.

Two further papers were published by Rontgen on the physical aspects of the new kind of rays: the second, March 9, 1896, in the same journal as was his first; and the third, March 10, 1897, in the bulletin of the Prussian Academy of Science, in Berlin. Meanwhile, dozens of honors were bestowed upon him. Rontgen was made an honorary citizen of Lennep, the town of his birth; he received the Royal Order of Merit of the Bavarian Crown, but turned down a proffered grant of nobility, which would have added the prefix von to his name. He continued his work in Wurzburg until April 1, 1900, when he accepted an appointment as Professor of Physics and Director of the Physical Institute at Ludwig-Maximilian’s university in Munich. In December, 1901, he traveled to Stockholm, and, in the year of its inception, he received the Nobel prize for his contribution to physics.

Rontgen continued his work at the University in Nunich until retirement in 1920. Even then, two small laboratories were made available to him for continued work. At seventy-five years of age, however, he was a tired and lonely man. Once comparatively secure financially, World War I and the collapse of the German economy virtually impoverished him; and Mrs. Rontgen had died, October 31, 1919. Many of his friends were gone, too. Honors still came to him, but now they meant little. He experienced a feeling of great satisfaction from the progress that had been made in use of x-rays in medicine, and in industry. The demands of Word War I had proved their value in both fields. A victim of carcinoma of the gastrointestinal tract, Rontgen died, February 10, 1923.

What of Rontgen rays – or – x-rays – over the ensuing years? Their diagnostic applications offered almost endless possibilities for development – but virtually all basic physical facts about the rays were established within two years after their discovery. As a medical student Walter B Cannon (later to become a famous physiologist at Harvard) demonstrated experimentally that a contrast meal could be followed through the stomach and the intestinal tract by use of x-ray equipment. Along with radium, discovered by Mme. Curie some three years later, x-rays were found to be valuable as a therapeutic agent.

The first twenty years of employment of x-rays were years of trials and errors, due to crudeness of equipment and to lack of understanding of their behavior. The next decade, which began with World War I, brought many advances. The 1930’s placed a firm foundation under radiotherapy; and by 1940, reliable systems for calculation and control of x-ray dosage had been devised. The next twenty years, encompassing World War II, brought still greater advances in application of x-rays. Powerful machines that would have astounded Rontgen were developed, the rays of which may be focused effectively to alter malignant growths deep in the body.

From the pioneer research begun by Rontgen came the science of roentgenology. Following in rapid succession came related discoveries by other scientists: radium, the electron, radioactivity, nuclear fission, nuclear fusion, and preparation of radioisotopes. Each has been demonstrated to have power to improve and to save lives – as well as to destroy them. Only history, with benefit of perspective of centuries to come, will be able to evaluate truly the use which man will have made of the forces unleashed when Wilhelm Conrad Rontgen saw a ghostly green glow in his darkened laboratory.


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