Discover the impact of X-rays on modern medicine

Adrian Thomas

Dr Adrian Thomas

As we commemorate International Day of Radiology and World Radiography Day on 8th November 2016, Dr Adrian Thomas, BIR’s Honorary Historian gives an overview of the history of radiology and encourages anyone interested in the history of medicine to dip in to the BIR’s history of radiology web pages.

It is very difficult to put oneself into the position of someone living in the 19th century prior to the discovery of X-rays (in 1895) and radioactivity (in 1896). The early scientists had a certainty and confidence that is alien to our contemporary worldview. In science there was a feeling that everything important had basically been worked out, and that there would be no major surprises around the corner. Chemistry and physics were pretty much understood, and with some justification since the scientific achievements of the 19th century were astonishing. For example the laying of the cable across the Atlantic Ocean in 1858 was a remarkable accomplishment by any standards.

All was to change with the discoveries of 1895 and 1896. Neither X-rays nor radioactivity could be explained by contemporary physical models, The X-rays should have been predicted since it was already known that the spectrum extended invisibly beyond the infra red and ultra violet.

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The invisible rays discovered by Wilhelm Conrad Röntgen produced a sensation in both the scientific community and the general public. The sense of amazement was so great that the public needed reassurance that this was a proper discovery by a serious scientist.

There was an immediate interest by the medical community, and The X-Ray Society was founded which was the first in the world. This became the Röntgen Society and finally the British Institute of Radiology. A society needs a journal, and this has gone by many names over the years, such as Archives of Skiagraphy, Archives of the Roentgen Ray, Journal of the Röntgen Society, and currently the British Journal of Radiology. This journal is a treasure, and is a major world journal with publications by many of the major figures associated with radiology. Perhaps the main change in the journal over the years is that it is now focused on human applications of the radiological sciences. In the early years there were articles on all aspects of radiology, including radiography of paintings, X-ray astronomy, and animal radiography.

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X-ray 1897: Hand radiograph of Sebastian Gilbert Scott

The story since the 1890s can be divided into three periods. Firstly the time of the pioneers when knowledge was still very limited. The second period is that of classical radiology. This was the period of often quite invasive diagnostic tests and abnormalities were often shown indirectly, for example by the displacement of normal structures. There was an increasing knowledge of the response of tissues to radiation, with the development of a scientific approach to treatments.

The modern or third period is from the 1970s, which may be seen as a “golden decade” of radiology, and was ushered in by the CT or EMI scanner,the forerunners of our digital world. It is difficult to underestimate the role of the CT scanner, and it had profound effects on diagnosis and treatment planning.

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First image scanned on the prototype EMI scanner at Atkinson Morley’s Hospital 1971

Since the 1970s radiology has changed beyond recognition in all areas. For example not only has wet film processing disappeared but also film itself has passed away.

The BIR and its journals have been at the forefront of the advances in the radiological sciences. We have a treasure with publications by the greats in radiology, such as Peter Kerley, Ralston Patterson, Ian Donald, James Ambrose and Godfrey Hounsfield.

It is fascinating to read the words of those who came before us, and to consider the remarkable achievements in the last 120 years. I think you will find exploring our archives well worth your time.

 

 

Visit the BIR history website pages here

Visit the BJR archives here

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