It’s hard to imagine medicine without x-rays, but the technology is a relative youngster in health care. Wilhelm Conrad Roentgen, professor of physics and director of the Physical Institute of the University of Wurzburg, Germany, stumbled on x-rays quite by accident working late one November night in 1895 in his laboratory.
Today, Nov. 8, is celebrated as X-ray Discovery Day in salute of this life-changing, life-saving technology.
In her book Wilhelm Roentgen and the Discovery of X-Rays, Kimberly Garcia recounts that Roentgen, then 50 years old, was experimenting with electricity when he discovered the existence of this “invisible light.” He repeated his experiments numerous times in the coming weeks, isolating himself and sometimes sleeping on a cot in his lab. He had his wife, Bertha, place her hand on a photographic plate for 15 minutes while x-rays passed through it. The resulting picture, which alarmed Frau Roentgen, became famous.
Not knowing what exactly the rays were that he was producing in his lab, Roentgen referred to them as x-rays. He published his findings in the Proceedings of the Physical Medical Society of Wurzburg on December 28, 1895. While the scientist was highly annoyed at how the resulting fame disrupted his lab work, Kaiser Wilhelm II decorated him with the Order of the Crown the following January. In 1901, Roentgen became the first recipient of the Nobel Prize for physics.
His discovery is credited as being one of the greatest advances in the history of medicine. X-rays have found countless uses over the years, from examining the human body to checking the safe manufacture of hundreds of products to screening bags and luggage at airports. Dental records obtained by x-rays can be used as evidence in court proceedings and as a means of determining identification. When he first discovered x-rays, Roentgen had no idea how they would be used to improve our lives.