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The Forgotten Pioneer: Tracing Radiology’s History Back to Braunschweig

Giesel in his lab

Image credit: Rudolf G.A. Fricke

This week is a very important one for the field of medical imaging. As well as today being the International Day of Radiology, the 148th birthday of Marie Curie was celebrated on November 7th.

Medical imaging is so commonplace these days that it can be easy to overlook the almost magical feats that it lets us achieve, looking into the body from every angle without ever having to make an incision.

The past 100 years have seen the most momentous developments in the history of radiology, from the pioneering work done by Marie Curie on radioactivity to the discovery of the half-life by Ernest Rutherford. But there is one man to whom all these discoveries can be traced. A man so selflessly devoted to his research that he often chose to forego fame and fortune to share his discoveries for the benefit of scientific advancement. That man is Friedrich Oskar Giesel.

“A lot of the last century’s big discoveries can be traced back to Giesel,” said Guenter Schwarzl, Atomic Energy Engineering Manager at GE Healthcare Buchler GmbH & Co. KG in Braunschweig, Germany. The business, now operated by GE to produce radioiodine products for diagnosis and treatment, is where Giesel did his most important work.

Luminous cups

Image credit: Rudolf G.A. Fricke

Considered a forgotten pioneer of radiochemistry, Giesel dedicated his life to radioactivity research. In 1878, aged 26, Giesel accepted a position as chief operating chemist at the Braunschweig Quinine factory, founded by Hermann Buchler in 1858. Little did he know, he had been set on a path to change the course of medical history.

He quickly rose through the ranks and, along with his former university professor Carl Liebermann, became a world-class chemist and producer of the anti-malarial drug quinine. But his interests soon shifted to the brand new and fascinating field of radiochemistry.

In the late 1890s, while still working at the factory, Giesel began his radiochemistry work in earnest. This led him to become one of the world’s foremost producers of radium, the radioactive substance that was to become the cornerstone of nuclear medicine for decades to come.

In March 1899, he presented his first batch of radium to the Scientific Association of Braunschweig. At Braunschweig, he continually improved and perfected the production process and quickly became a leading radium provider, supplying the raw materials for some of the world’s most important scientific experiments of the time, including those of William Ramsay, Frederick Soddy and of course Marie Curie.

“By 1901 interest in radium worldwide began to take off, so Buchler took the opportunity to make a business out of it,” added Schwarzl.

Giesel, with the Braunschweig institute behind him, went on to lay the groundwork for some very important discoveries. With his colleague, dentist Otto Walkhoff, he worked on the cathode ray tube. That’s the very same tube that enabled Wilhelm Röntgen, the subject of many Pulse posts, to discover X-rays.

He also cooperated with the most important scientists of the time, like Otto Hahn and Ernest Rutherford. Giesel was in contact with all of them.


Image credit: Rudolf G.A. Fricke

In 1944, a big part of the radium production area was demolished by the bombs of the Second World War. Braunschweig had taken a hit, and the future of the facility was uncertain. “After World War Two, there was pressure for Buchler to start production again as soon as possible,” said Schwarzl. “They continued to produce quinine for malaria, but they also went into medical sources and luminescent paint, which was key for the war, used to paint instrumentation in aeroplanes to see it in the dark and the like. This is what got the facility back on its feet again.”

Today, the institute continues to work at the cutting edge of medical imaging, leading the world in the arena of personalised diagnostics and speedy delivery of treatment solutions.

“Now, we work in personalised medicine,” said Schwarzl. “That means that every product that is ordered for certain diagnosis and treatment procedures is tailored to each patient according to their unique needs.”

The way these solutions are made and delivered to where they are needed is unparalleled, and brings to mind the seamless, streamlined, ever-improving process of popular online delivery services.


Image credit: Rudolf G.A. Fricke

“An order can come in at 2pm in the afternoon and in the same day, the product is made and at by 5pm it leaves Braunschweig,” he added. “It will be delivered overnight to the customer, so care can be delivered to the patient the very next day.”

This International Day of Radiology, take a moment to consider the wonder that is radiography, and how many times it has affected your life, be it a simple dental X-ray or a complex 3D-CT scan.

More Information

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International Day of Radiology 2015