X-Ray Vision: Roentgen’s Amazing Discovery

The discovery in 1895 had Americans half drunk with excitement over the new technology, as revealed in these vintage products

Like so many other good things, Edwin Gerson’s hobby began in the open air. It all got rolling at a flea market about 30 years ago, when he stumbled across an old sign advertising “X-Ray Headache Tablets.” Now that’s curious, he thought. Why would the sign say that, exactly? What was the connection between X-rays and headaches?

A radiologist, Gerson, M72, M12P, had an especially keen interest in sorting out the answer. And so he started collecting late 19th- and early 20th-century American products that evidenced the public’s widespread fascination with X-rays, first discovered by Conrad Roentgen in Wurzburg, Germany, in November 1895.

Gerson went on to acquire dozens of examples of items sold with the X-ray brand, including golf balls, prophylactics, flashlight batteries, coffee grinders and sheet music. (He recently donated his collection for permanent display at the University of Texas M.D. Anderson Cancer Center in Houston.) There seems to have been no merchandise that could not easily be “improved” by an association with X-rays. But this is neither as remote nor as mysterious as it might seem.

“Why would an advertiser for headache pills or golf balls or stove polish choose to put the word ‘X-ray’ on their products?” Gerson wondered in an article devoted to his hobby that ran in the trade journal RadioGraphics in 2004. “For the same reason,” he answered, “that we see the word ‘laser’ applied to everything from courier services to running shoes: New technologies have an appeal that reaches far into the public psyche.”

At the tail end of the 19th century, everything scientific held a magnificent allure. It was a time of technical marvels. In the 1890s, incandescent lighting was a new phenomenon just beginning to transform the American night and bring millions out of darkness. The automobile was in its infancy, as were a slew of other clever inventions and devices—including the telephone, the airplane, the movie projector and the diesel engine—that promised to lighten the load for working people everywhere while expanding their leisure time. Advertising on a mass scale was itself a fresh invention, perfectly suited to helping promote the newfound wonders of the age.

The X-ray had immediate appeal to scientists and members of the general public alike since it enabled users to see through solid material to the essence beneath. One of the first images ever made by means of the X-ray revealed the bones in the hand of Roentgen’s wife, with her ring of gold forming a black lozenge on one finger. Well, this was magic, pure and simple. Everyone could feel the thrill and wanted to press closer to the source, if at all possible.

Kings and Queens

Among members of the scientific community, the fever found its own expression: Some 50 books and pamphlets and nearly 1,000 papers were published on the X-ray within a year after its discovery.

Who could resist? In Europe, the Kaiser had his arm X-rayed, and the British Prime Minister Lord Salisbury and his wife each had their hands done in 1896. The queen of Portugal went so far as to require her ladies in waiting to have their chests X-rayed to show the damage caused by their tight corsets. Public demonstrations were commonplace. As one example, in the summer of 1896 a man named Herbert Hawks was demonstrating the marvels of X-ray technology for hours at a time at Bloomingdale Brothers’ Store in New York City.

American medicine didn’t waste a minute. Historians say the first domestic use came on February 3, 1896, at Dartmouth College, when an astronomer named Edwin Frost made an X-ray of a local boy’s fractured wrist. Within a matter of months, countless X-rays of bone fractures and bullets and needles embedded in bodies had accrued.

Images were taken of tumors, and, through ingestion by subjects of specially prepared meals, the gastrointestinal tract was rendered visible. Breast cancer, lupus and stomach cancer were likewise targeted by the penetrating rays. Men injured on the battlefield were among the first to benefit directly, as concealed metal fragments and injuries could now be seen.

Language filled with hyperbole seemed altogether fitting. One anatomy professor at the University of Pennsylvania confirmed the importance of X-rays for the diagnosis of kidney stones and cirrhotic livers by proclaiming dreamily in the New York Times that “the surgical imagination can pleasurably lose itself in devising endless applications of this wonderful process.”

Danger Ahead

In retrospect, it is evident that the dangers of the technology were not well understood. Some few scientists tried to limit their exposure, or took pains to wrap the machines with crude shielding of wood or leather. But mostly, because the damaging effects of the X-rays were slow to appear, users plunged forward with an attitude that can only be called cavalier.

It was common for X-ray operators to hold their hands in front of the beam whenever they turned it on in order to test the quality of the image. Not many months elapsed before the early signs of radiation poisoning—notably hair loss and serious skin burns—began to be noted among a number of those routinely exposed to the beams.

Thomas Edison’s chief lab assistant, a man named Clarence Dally, was an early victim. In the beginning, both Edison and Dally repeatedly exposed themselves to X-rays in popular demonstrations of their new toy, the Edison X-ray focus tube, which produced sharper images.

After a while Dally noticed aggressive burns on his hands. These quickly turned cancerous, but Dally persisted in working with X-rays. Eventually the pain intensified, and both the assistant’s arms had to be amputated. Dally died in 1904, the first radiation-related death in the United States. A shaken Edison abandoned his study of the field of radiology and refused to be X-rayed for the remainder of his life.

But all that grim news, and the advent of safe professional standards surrounding X-rays, lay years in the future at the time the products shown here were put up for sale. These items were conceived and circulated in the first, bright flush of public excitement over being able to see through things that until that moment had always been impenetrable. They perfectly reflect the giddiness of that historic moment.

This article first appeared in the Winter 2012 issue of Tufts Medicine magazine.

Bruce Morgan can be reached at bruce.morgan@tufts.edu.

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