World radiology day: how the near-accidental discovery of X-rays changed the history of medicine

November 8 is the world day of radiological medicine or radiology. This date was chosen therefore, On November 8, 1895, the German physicist Wilhelm Röntgen discovered X-rays.

Like many physicists of the late nineteenth century, Röntgen was experimenting with a cathode ray tube: the same device with which two years later, in 1897, the British JJ Thomson discovered electrons.

In fact, Röntgen’s and Thomson’s investigations were practically contemporary, and we owe both the description of many properties of cathode rays.

But to Röntgen we owe a whole branch of medicine, which is still vital, in the 21st century and even more in these times of pandemic: radiology.

Unknown rays

By experimenting with cathode rays, Röntgen observed certain phenomena that did not fully correspond to what was known about this type of radiation at the time.

Then, he considered that this “additional radiation” corresponded to another type of electromagnetic manifestation which he called X-rays: same as the unknown in an equation, because at that time I knew and understood little about where they came from and what they were due to.

But like any good scientist, Röntgen set out to find out more about these unknown rays. So in the weeks and months following his discovery in November he did all kinds of experiments to find out more about the nature of this “mysterious” radiation.

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

These observations led Röntgen to carry out a very particular experiment: he asked his wife to put her hand on a photographic plate and brought him an X-ray source.

The “photograph” that he thus obtained on December 22, 1895, was the first X-ray in the history of medicine and ultimately in the history of mankind.

For his discovery of X-rays, Wilhelm Röntgen received the first Nobel Prize awarded in the category of Physics, in 1901.

Since then, the medicine was not the same

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

Its application occurred almost immediately: in 1896 brothers Gilman Frost, physician, and Edwin Frost, physicist, at Dartmouth University took an x-ray, to observe the recovery process of a Gilman patient’s broken wrist.

And so its use began to become popular both for the diagnosis and treatment of bone fractures, as well as for surgeries related to gunshot wounds or that required the removal of an object from inside the body.

Now X-rays are used in dental diagnosis and treatment, but also in the early detection of cancer: for example, mammography uses X-rays to look at breast tissues.

This technique has also been very useful in these almost two years of the pandemic, since X-rays are used to diagnose the advancement of diseases that affect the lungs. So that X-rays have also been vital for the treatment of COVID-19 patients.

So today on world radiology day, we wish a long life to this technique that combines physics, engineering and medicine.

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