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Today's selection -- from Empire of The Scalpel by Ira Rutkow. Physics professor Wilhelm Röntgen made an unexpected discovery when he blasted electrons from one electrode to another:
 
"In the mid-fall of 1895, Wilhelm Röntgen, a physics professor at Wurzburg, Ger­many, was working in a darkened laboratory with an electron tube -- a vacuum glass cylinder that blasted electrons from one electrode to another -- when he observed a strange phenomenon. An invisible energy that radiated from the tube had pen­etrated layers of surrounding cardboard and produced a faint green glow on a nearby fluorescent screen. Röntgen experimented with other materials (e.g., paper, rubber, and wood) that he wrapped around the tube but found the X-rays (he termed his discovery 'X-rays' because their composition was unknown) passed through all sub­stances except for lead. The emissions also darkened photographic plates and, as an experiment, Röntgen had his wife place her hand between the source of the X-rays and a plate. To their amazement, the bones in her hand were distinctly outlined. The findings were so startling that Röntgen's report on 'shadow pictures' soon appeared in a scientific periodical and, by early 1896, was translated and published in the United States.

"There is no overemphasizing the profound effect that the discovery of the X-ray had on the broadest range of human existence. The finding was a scientific bombshell that warranted interest from scientists and laymen alike. Newspapers and magazines printed stories, true and false, about the newly discovered rays. Women were cautioned that handheld X-ray devices could peer through their clothes. Men were warned that police would adapt X-rays to spy on nefarious activities. There was even the suggestion that X-rays might be exploited to see through walls into private spaces and spy on people's intimate activities.

First medical X-ray by Wilhelm Röntgen of his wife Anna Bertha Ludwig's hand

"Notwithstanding these unrealistic concerns, the opportunities for using X-rays in Medicine were immediately apparent and surgeons were the first to do so. Ini­tially, the new tool was valuable in diagnosing fractures, locating bullets, and de­tecting other metallic objects in the body. Shortly, abnormalities like gallstones and kidney stones came under scrutiny. The availability of X-rays let the scalpel wielder have a better idea of what would be found when a patient's body was opened and how successful the operation had been after the wound was closed. To visualize a change in the internal landscape following the alignment of a broken bone or the removal of gallstones provided surgeons with immediate proof of the effectiveness of their treatment. So pronounced was the fascination with what became known as 'radiographs' that a surgeon stated the obvious:

'The manifold uses to which Roentgen's discovery may be applied to medicine are so obvious that it is even now questionable whether a surgeon would be morally justified in performing a certain class of operation without having first seen pictured by these rays the field of his work, a map, as it were, of the unknown country he is to explore.'

"Not only did the accessibility of X-rays change the definition of what consti­tuted a successful surgical intervention, but also the physical presence of an X-ray apparatus lent an air of modernity and scientific progress that impressed patients and marked surgery as an up-and-coming profession. Within one year of Röntgen's announcement, X-rays were part of the generally accepted technology utilized by all surgeons as well as a matchless sign of their clinical authority. 'No surgical consulting-room is fully equipped without an apparatus for X-ray investigation,' declared one knife bearer. 'It is as essential to the surgeon as the mirror to the laryn­gologist, or the stethoscope to the general practitioner.'

"By 1900, the use of X-rays passed beyond simple demonstrations of skeletal ab­normalities or detection of metal objects in the body. It became apparent that X-rays killed rapidly dividing cells, an observation that intrigued cancer researchers and brought about the beginnings of radiation oncology. Although surgeons would no longer be the only practitioners at the forefront of advances in radiology, their early appropriation of the new technology demonstrated that the X-ray machine was an indispensable medical and surgical device."

Empire of the Scalpel: The History of Surgery
 
author: Ira Rutkow  
title: Empire of the Scalpel: The History of Surgery  
publisher: Scribner  
date: Copyright 2022 by Ira Rutkow  
page(s): 170-172  
Empire of the Scalpel: The History of Surgery
 

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