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Roentgen's birthplace in Lennep, a town in Eastern Prussia 

rv Otto a 



<^A story of the discovery of a light that was never on land or sea 

by Elizabeth Cole 

THE transparent man at the Century of Progress Fair in Chicago 
startlingly revealed the various organs, bones and joints of the 
human body to all who were fortunate enough to view this 
skilfully contrived invention. Three years later at the Hall of Science 
in Rockefeller Center, New York, the woman of glass with its elec- 
trically lighted organs, circulatory and nervous systems, contributed 
still further to our knowledge of the magic way in which nature has 
put together her human beings. 

What a boon these inventions are for doctors in explaining to 
patients how they have been guided in making their diagnosis! Each 
year the public becomes more and more intelligent in the hows and 
whys of sickness and the doctors' diagnosis and treatment are no longer 
veiled in mystery. 

The man who was greatly responsible for this forward step in science 
was Wilhelm Konrad Roentgen. He discovered the X-ray in 1895. 

If we today are fascinated over the marvel of "seeing through our- 
selves" it is easily imagined how Roentgen's discovery must have 
startled the world in the nineties. 

At the time, Roentgen was fifty years of age. He was a professor 
of physics and mathematics, who had been graduated with a degree 
of Doctor of Philosophy. Keenly interested in radiation he had been 
working on this fascinating study for years. He was not seeking to find 
a cure for disease, however; nor was he a physician like Robert Koch. 
He was seeking to find "invisible light" in his laboratory and through 
his discovery of the X-ray he gave to the world of medicine and sur- 
gery a new method of examination that has made early and exact 
diagnosis possible in many insidious diseases such as tuberculosis. He 
has saved thousands of human lives. 

Although born in Lennep, a little town in Eastern Prussia on March 
27, 1845, Wilhelm and his parents soon moved to Holland, his 
mother's country. His boyhood and early school days were not unusual 
in any special way; in fact, he was not a very good nor interested 
student. Then he entered the Polytechnic School at Zurich in Switzer- 


Dr. Otto Glasser 

Bertha Ludwig Roentgen 

land where he had a most inspiring teacher of physics, Rudolph 
Clausius. His interest in science was awakened and he became an exact 
and enthusiastic pupil. So outstanding was his ability that following his 
graduation at the University of Zurich he was appointed assistant to 
August Kundt, a great teacher there in experimental physics, whom he 
had studied under and greatly admired. With him he went in 1870 to 
Wurzburg and later to Strassburg. Here he was married in 1872 to 
Bertha Ludwig, a Swiss who had remarkable sympathy and understand- 
ing for his work. 

In 1888, at the age of 43, Roentgen was appointed Professor of J 
Mathematics and Physics at Wurzburg, the second most important ^ 
university in Bavaria, and it was there that he made his world-startling 

During these years he was a popular and stimulating teacher to those 
pupils who were interested in his subjects but boring to those who did 
not care for mathematics or physics. His reticence and modesty kept I 
him from caring for promotions and his name was little known outside! 



Dr. Otto Glasser 
Wilhelm Konrad Roentgen 

the university. The bomb of his discovery therefore came with even 
greater force and at first people thought he had chanced upon a miracle. 

For many years he had been interested in invisible energy and had 
carried on concentrated research in radiation in his laboratory. On 
November 8, 1895, the final result of his work was revealed to him. 

In his laboratory he had connected an induction coil to a Crookes 
tube. This was a vacuum tube that had been invented by Sir William 
Crookes of London in the seventies. It threw out light and glowed 
with a phosphorescence when electricity was passed between two elec- 
trodes inside the tube. To eliminate any visible rays Roentgen entirely 
covered the tube with black paper and excluded every bit of light from 
the room. Then he placed on the table opposite the tube a screen 
covered with a chemical preparation which gave a fluorescent glow. 
No visible light of any kind could get out of the tube nor penetrate it. 
Because of the darkness in the room he knew that there could be no 
radiation outside of the tube. Yet something did come from that tube 
and fell on the screen as a greenish glow. It was his invisible ray! 


He found that these rays would penetrate cardboard, wood, cloth, 
even a thick book, but they would not go through copper, iron and 
other metals so well. Then he found they would penetrate flesh but 
that the bones were opaque. He photographed what he saw and could 
scarcely believe his eyes. 

For weeks he had been laboring over these experiments, but the day 
he saw this "light that was never on land or sea" his wife Bertha, as 
she wrote to a cousin in America, was very angry with him for not 
praising a good dinner she had prepared. She had finally enticed him 
to come to eat but he had hurried through the meal and then, to appease 
her impatience with him, he took her to the darkened room where he 
showed her the wonders. He photographed her hand with the "new 
ray." Her bones and a ring showed but no skin appeared it was a 
skeleton hand. She was as excited as he and admitted that he had made 
a discovery well worth the sacrifice of her good dinner! 

He submitted his discovery to one test after another, watching in his 
laboratory night and day to see any new developments, but every ex- 
periment he made proved that his apparatus was fool-proof. 

Several weeks passed before he told others, even his laboratory 
assistants, anything about his invisible rays. A preliminary communica- 
tion was given December 28 to the Physical Medical Society of Wiirz- 
burg and it was published under the title, "On a New Kind of Ray,'* 
in the annals of the Society for 1895. 

Then after the Christmas holidays he spoke publicly before the 
Society in Wurzburg on January 23, 1896. The news of his discovery 
had got about and can you imagine the sensation it made among all 
groups of people? The announcement that Roentgen had seen the bones 
of a hand through the skin sounded absurd. Every seat in the vast 
auditorium was taken by the many persons who waited expectantly to 
hear his address "On a New Form of Radiation." Professors, high 
officials, army men, students, doctors, all were present and greeted 
Roentgen with enthusiastic applause. He told of his experiment and it 
sounded like magic. To prove his rays he took a photograph of the 
hand of a famous anatomist in the audience, His Excellency von 
Kolliker, and it was he who proposed that the ray should be named for 
Roentgen. Again great applause greeted the suggestion. The aged von 
Kolliker said that never in his forty-eight years of membership in the 
Society had he witnessed such an event. 

Roentgen hated publicity but he had to make the best of it. Every 


Wilhelm Konrad Roentgen as a student 

newspaper began to write about his "all penetrating rays." To a friend 
of his, Professor F. Exner of Vienna, he had loaned his first X-ray pic- 
tures and that is how the story got into the public press. Suppose you 
had lived then and had picked up your morning paper and read, "The 
noise of war's alarm (the Boer War was the biggest front page news in 
1895) should not distract attention from the marvelous triumph of 
science which is reported from Vienna. It is announced that Professor 
Roentgen of Wiirzburg University has discovered a light which for 
purposes of photography will penetrate wood, cloth and other organic 

An interview he later gave to a reporter illustrates Roentgen's own 
wonder at his discovery. "Is it light?" he was asked. "No," he replied, 
"for it can neither be reflected nor broken." "Is it electricity?" "Not in 


This little girl finds that the X-ray is by no means a formidable experience 




Diagram explaining the photograph above. It 
shows how the rays from the tube penetrate the 
body and make an X-ray photograph on the film 


any known form." "What is it then?" "I know not," concluded its 
modest discoverer. 

Hundreds of articles appeared in scientific journals during 1896. 
Physicians saw the possibilities offered by the X-ray but the general 
public was not so eager to "see through themselves." Cartoons were 
prolific and amusing. "On the revolting indecency of seeing people's 
bones we need not dwell," said one article. "Throw the thing into the 
sea where the fish may contemplate each other's bones but not for us!" 

In Punch, January 25, 1896, a verse appeared, two stanzas of which 
show the general feeling that here was something to make fun of as 
well as to marvel at. 

O Roentgen, then the news is true 
And not a trick or idle rumor 
That bids us each beware oj you 
And of your grim and graveyard humor. 

We do not want, like Dr. Swift 
To take our flesh off and to pose in 
Our bones, or show each little rift 
And joint for you to poke your nose in. 

Early in January, 1896, Roentgen was summoned to Berlin to 
demonstrate his discover)- to the Kaiser at the palace. Here he was 

(c) Power i X rat Produ 


awarded the Crown Order of the Second Class and given the title of 
Excellence. Other honors came to him, among which was the Nobel, 
prize in Physics in 1901, and an M.D. honorary degree from the Uni-I 
versity of Wiirzburg. He moved to Munich in 1900 to take charge of 
the Institute of Physics, where his work was largely administrative and 
did not permit him to devote much time to scientific research. 

Roentgen never spoke again before the public about his discovery 
but medical journals, electrical and engineering journals, and many 
others, published articles on the wonderful possibilities offered to 
diagnosis through the discovery of the X-ray. 

There were many stories given out about the way his discovery came 
to be made but Dr. Otto Glasser* in an article in the American journal 
of Roentgenology and Radio Therapy says that the most widely cir- 
culated account in our country was a myth. This has been accepted and 
described by many but makes the discovery seem purely accidental. 
The episode relates how Roentgen, suddenly called from his laboratory, 
left a glass bulb glowing with colored light on a book in which he 
had placed a large flat key as a bookmark. It happened that under the 
book was a photographic plate holder. When he returned he took up 
this plate holder with others and went to the country for a holiday 
outing. He took several pictures and when all were developed he found 
one which he couldn't understand. It showed the book and within its 
pages appeared the key as a shadow. He puzzled over how this came to 
be and made all kinds of experiments. Finally he placed the bulb, tube, 
book, key and plate as they had been before and found that by chance 
he had found his invisible light. This story has never been accepted 
save in the United States and while its romantic angle appeals to thc 
imagination it seems wholly inconsistent with the character of Roentgen 
and his habits of work and study. His was a search for truth with 
no desire for material reward and as a zealous, painstaking scientist he 
has had few equals. 

The first tube to reach America went to Johns Hopkins University 
and the second was secured by Amherst College. The following story 
of the second tube is not a myth. Dr. Kendall Emerson, a student at 
Amherst in 1896, and now Managing Director of the National Tuber- 
culosis Association, tells of having had his foot X-rayed. He thought 

* Otto Glasser, Ph.D., of the Cleveland Clinic Foundation, author of "W. C. Roentgen 
and the Early History of the Roentgen Rays," published by C. C. Thomas. 



^*&t.^&L,. M , )z .l 

: * 

( Physical-Chemical Institute of University 
of Vienna, Prof. Dr. E. Haschek) 

The X-ray Roentgen took of his wife's hand 

to convince her that his laboratory work was 

more important than his dinner 

it was the most mysterious thing that had ever happened. "The pro- 
fessor put my foot on a little rest in front of the light," he has said in 
describing the exciting event. "He gave me a box to look through with 
a fluorescent screen fastened on the front and a sight for my eyes on the 
opposite side. I looked and was tempted to leave the spot in a panic. 
Before my eyes was the outline of my shoe as a shadow on a brighter 
background and I could see right through the shoe and distinguish the 
nails in the shoe which showed black against the screen. But far worse 
than that awaited, for as my eyes grew accustomed to the dim and 
ghostly light the outlines of the bones of my forefoot and toes came 




sharply into view. I knew they belonged to me for I wiggled them to 
find out and sure enough the ghostly bones began to wiggle too." 

Since Roentgen's first tubes, other students of physics and electricity 
have added certain refinements and worked out better methods and 
techniques for using them. The replacing of the photographic plate by 
a fluorescent screen which later became the Edison fluoroscope, was a 
most important step. 

At first the X-ray was devoted chiefly to diagnosing fractures and 
diseases of the bone. Then, physicians began to realize the marvelous 
possibilites offered in studying diseases of the organs. As the X-ray 
machine became perfected, it was used more and more in all branches 
of medicine. Especially has it been a help in diagnosing tuberculosis 
where it is so difficult to locate the damage in the lungs by means of 
sound and touch. Healthy lungs, which are air-filled structures, easily 
permit the rays to pass through, but when the lungs are diseased with 
tuberculosis a dark shadow on the X-ray plate reveals where the disease 
is. There are various tones of gray seen on the film and the expert can 
discern just how much tuberculosis is present through his ability to 
distinguish between these grayish tones, a 

Today the X-ray is used in schools and clinics among children, and 
tens of thousands of pictures of the chests of school children are taken 
annually in this countryJwhen tuberculosis is found early in life, the 
child has all the chance in the world for recovery. In the olden days 
the disease was seldom discovered until it was too late for the patient 
to get well. Not only that, but the family and friends were daily being 
exposed to infection. With early discovery public health is benefited. I 

Boys and girls today do not become panicky when the X-ray machine 
is wheeled out, nor is it a long nor troublesome ordeal for the X-rayer 
or the X-rayed. There are now machines that take 150 X-ray pictures 
per hour and greatly simplify the cost of checking health among school 
children, as well as industrial workers in large business concerns. 
Paper films are used for this rapid method and are more economical 
than the celluloid films. They indicate the shadows as distinctly as is 
necessary. Although the equipment is still in experimental stages the 
future of the X-ray holds much promise. Each year sees some new step, 
such as portable machines and these paper films, so that X-raying has 
become a standardized method for diagnosis used by every tuberculosis 

Another and most important contribution of the X-ray to tuberculosis 


The first tubercle (A) in a child with damage 

of the lymph node. (B) This is called childhood 

type of tuberculosis 

control is its use in following the progress of the disease, or the effects 
of treatment. Artificial pneumothorax, or collapse of the diseased lung, 
is given to many tuberculosis patients to rest the lung. The work of 
breathing may then be carried on by the good lung and the sick lung 
is allowed to rest. Follow-up X-rays are taken to see what has been 
accomplished through inserting the air. Many patients are now alive, 
who, without this procedure, might have died. J 
C In countless other fields the Roentgen ray is serving mankind too. 
Flaws in iron and steel castings may be discovered; thus industry is 
benefited. In forestry the condition of trees may be determined through 
the X-ray. In art it is used to detect fakes in paintings by the old 
masters. In all foot troubles the bones of the feet may be studied to 
find out what type of shoe best suits the individual's needs. For diag- 
nosis of the conditions of the teeth the X-ray is a most necessary aid to 
dentists. It is also used in the treatment of certain diseases. J 

Roentgen's great discovery is famous throughout the civilized world 
but the personality of the man himself was known to few. Retiring and 
simple in his manner and always modest over his contribution to 
science he never allowed himself to become a public figure. His Dutch 
mother had taught him orderliness and this was characteristic of every 
step in his research work. It is interesting to note that in an address he 


made at the University of Wiirzburg a year before his discovery he quoted 
the following sentence from a professor, P. A. Kirchner, who had said 
it in 1602 : "Nature often reveals the most astonishing phenomena by 
the simplest means, but these phenomena can only be recognized by 
those who have sharp judgment and the investigating spirit, and who 
have learned to obtain information from experience, the teacher of all 
things." Certainly Roentgen was one of those who captured the phe- 
nomena of nature with his investigating spirit. Thorough, exact, and 
keen, his work was always reliable and his information was gleaned 
step by step from the task-master, experience. 

Roentgen had few friends but those who knew him held him in high 
esteem. During the World War he suffered greatly over the distress of 
his country and permitted himself no luxuries, save his well-loved 
Dutch tobacco which he used as sparingly as possible. The Roentgen's 
never had any children and when in 1919 his wife, Bertha, who had 
always been very dear to him, died he felt there was little in life to 
live for. On February 10, 1923, he died of cancer at the age of 78. 

In this photograph the baby is lying on the X-ray film with a modern typ 

of apparatus above 

Eastman Kodak Company 

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