At some point in every life, there comes a need for X-rays. It might be a broken bone, as it was this time for me, when I broke my shoulder three weeks ago, or it might be at the dentist, as he looks for cavities in your teeth, but I think pretty much everyone has an X-ray at some point. This process is so common, that most of us give it little or no thought, but prior to November 8, 1895, X-rays didn’t exist. It was on this day in 1895…120 years ago, that physicist Wilhelm Conrad Röntgen became the first person to observe X-rays. This was a huge scientific advancement that would ultimately benefit a variety of fields, but most of all medicine, by making the hidden things visible. Before the discovery of X-ray, broken bones, tumors, and the location of bullets were all diagnosed by physical examination and a doctor’s best guess. It’s no wonder so many people didn’t survive their injuries or illnesses.
When I broke my shoulder, having the X-rays was something I really gave no thought to, other than sitting there with my shoulder hurting while the technicians did their jobs. Of course, looking at the X-rays of my broken shoulder was interesting. I suppose that comes from my caregiver side. Since taking care of my parents and in-laws, I can honestly say that I have looked at more X-rays than I can count. Each one held an interest to me. It cleared up the mystery of what was wrong with my loved one, and now myself. I have to think too, that were it not for the ability to do X-rays, my surgery to put a plate and nine screws in my shoulder bone, would not have been possible, or at least not easy to do. I’m sure that my prognosis would have been much different. X-rays have made so many things possible, and they aren’t even limited to the medical field. They have helped in many fields. Other than medicine, the other original use for X rays was in studying the inner structure of materials. By firing a beam of X rays at a crystal, the atoms scatter the beam in a very precise way, casting a kind of shadow of the crystal’s interior pattern from which you can measure the distance between one atom and nearby atoms. X-rays are used in airports to look into carry on items to ensure the safety of the passengers on the flight. The criminal justice system has used dental and other X-rays for some time to identify unknown crime victims. X-rays are being used to identify the elements of paintings done by the masters to find out what kind of pigment was used. They help to determine the age of paintings, whether they are genuine or copies and how the pigments change over time. X-rays have improved the work of so many people, by making the hidden things visible.
Röntgen’s discovery of the X-ray was really by accident. He was in his lab in Wurzburg, Germany, where he was testing whether cathode rays could pass through glass when he noticed a glow coming from a nearby chemically coated screen. Because he really didn’t know exactly what kind of rays these were, he called them X-rays. I have often wondered just why they were called X-rays. Now I know. It was all because X means unknown. It’s almost funny to call something unknown, when it reveals the hidden things, making them known. No matter what it is called, it is, nevertheless, an amazing find and an amazing advancement in the medical field, and so many others too.