This Day in History- 1895: German scientist discovers X-rays

Ashton Waldron, Herald Contributor

1895: German Scientist Discovers X-rays

On Nov. 8, 1895, German scientist, Wilhelm Conrad Röntgen, was the first person to observe an X-ray. Röntgen (1845-1923) entered the University of Utrecht in 1865 where he began to study physics and mechanical engineering. In 1869, Röntgen graduated from the University of Zurich with a Ph.D. A few years later, he became a college professor at multiple universities where his love for physics was shared. It was in 1895 when Röntgen made one of the world’s most beneficial medical advancements — the x-ray. X-rays are electromagnetic energy waves of short wavelengths where pictures of inside the body are made visible; specifically for looking at bones.

The images of X-rays are shades of black and white since different tissues throughout the body absorb different amounts of radiation. For example, the bones contain ample amounts of calcium, making them look white while fat and other soft tissues do not absorb as much light and look gray. Air in the body absorbs the least amount of light so the lungs appear black. Röntgen’s discovery of the X-ray was an accident as he was working in his lab in Wurzburg, Germany, when he was testing whether or not cathode rays are able to pass through glass. He noticed a glow come from a chemically coated screen nearby and hypothesized that the rays caused that glow. Röntgen buried away in his lab where he conducted a variety of experiments to better understand his experiment and learned that X-rays penetrate through human flesh so that bones can be seen. This discovery was known as a “medical miracle” because it allowed doctors to see inside the human body without surgery.

Scientists were not so quick to use this advancement as it was not until 1897 when X-rays were used on a military battlefield to find bullets and broken bones. After that, X-rays were used much more, but the effects of radiation were thought to be harmless. In 1904, reported cases of burns and skin damage due to radiation were exposed. This led to more research involving the effects of radiation and ways to decrease the effects. 

Today, the use of a lead apron is worn to protect parts of the body from radiation. Wilhelm Röntgen won many awards for his work, including the first Nobel Prize in physics in 1901. Röntgen has no idea how widely used his findings are today.