Tomorrow marks the very special birthday of a man who, in a darkened laboratory on a cold November night in 1895, accidentally changed the course of medicine forever.
Wilhelm Roentgen’s original intention was to observe the effects of electricity on various pieces of vacuum tube equipment.
He noted that one particular tube – made by physicist Philipp von Lenard – made a nearby sheet of barium platinocyanide fluoresce. In true scientific spirit, his curiosity drove him to explore the phenomenon further. What he ended up discovering were a previously undocumented form of rays, which he named ‘X’ for their unknown properties.
Roentgen’s work was advanced greatly by the contributions and support of his wife, Anna Bertha Ludwig. Anna was to be the first ever subject of an X-ray scan when she placed her hand between the radioactive material and a fluorescent plate, casting the familiar bony shadow of her hand and wedding ring that sparked a whole new medical discipline that has since saved millions of lives. For the first time, the inner workings of the body could be examined without even needing to cut through flesh.
After his discovery, Roentgen was made an honorary Doctor of Medicine at the University of Wurzburg, Bavaria, and went on to be awarded the first Nobel Prize in Physics in 1901.
Since then, the nascent field of medical radiology moved from strength to strength with the invention of computed tomography, ultrasound and magnetic resonance imaging in the century since his death.
In a world that would surely baffle and astound Roentgen, radiologists are the gatekeepers of the human body and work at the cutting edge of medical technology, as demonstrated at RSNA and ECR year after year.
Happy 170th birthday, Dr Roentgen, and here’s to many more years of innovation.