How the accidental discovery of X-rays changed the history of medicine


November 8 is the World Radiological Day or Radiological Medicine. This date was chosen for that, On November 8, 1895, the German physicist Wilhelm Röntgen discovered X-rays.

Like many physicists in the late 19th century, Roentgen was testing the cathode ray tube: the same device that British J.J. Thomson discovered electrons two years later in 1897.

In fact, Roentgen and Thomson’s investigations were practically contemporary, and we owe it to both of us to describe many of the properties of cathode rays.

But we owe to Röntgen a whole branch of medicine, which is still vital, in the twenty-first century and even more so in these times of epidemic: radiology.

unknown rays

Experimenting with cathode rays, Roentgen noticed some phenomena that do not completely correspond to what was known about this type of radiation at that time.

Then consider that this “extra radiation” corresponds to Another type of electromagnetic phenomenon he called X ray: Same unknown in the equation, for at that time I knew and understood little of where they came from and what was due to them.

But like any good scientist, Roentgen set out to discover more about these unknown rays. So in the weeks and months after his discovery in November, he conducted all kinds of experiments to learn more about the nature of this “mysterious” radiation.

He found through his experiments that X-rays propagate in a straight line, obscuring a photographic plate – just like visible light – and also that they have very high energy, as they can pass through all kinds of materials.

These observations prompted Roentgen to conduct a very special experiment: he asked his wife to put her hand on a photographic plate and brought him an X-ray source.

It was the “portrait” he obtained on December 22, 1895 The first x-rays in the history of medicine and eventually in the history of mankind.

for his discovery of x-rays, Wilhelm Röntgen was awarded his first Nobel Prize in the Physics category in 1901.

Since then, the medicine has not been the same

Although Roentgen’s intention to take X-rays of his wife’s hand was not for medical purposes, this certainly evidence of the ability of X-rays to penetrate the soft tissues of the body, left open the possibility of their use in medicine.

It was applied almost immediately: in 1896 Brothers Gilman Frost, a physician, and Edwin Frost, a physicist at Dartmouth University, took x-rays, to monitor the healing process of a Gilman patient’s fractured wrist.

Thus, its use began to spread to diagnose and treat bone fractures, as well as in surgical procedures related to gunshot wounds or that required the removal of an object from within the body.

X-rays are now used in dental diagnosis and treatment, but also in the early detection of cancer: for example, A mammogram uses X-rays to examine breast tissue.

This technique was also very useful in those roughly two years of the epidemic, as X-rays are used to diagnose the development of diseases affecting the lungs. for this reason X-rays were also necessary to treat COVID-19 patients.

So on World Radiology Day, we wish a long life to this technology that combines physics, engineering and medicine.

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