Mind & Body

The Sometimes Strange History of the X-Ray

Our ability to look inside the body—and understand radiation—continues to evolve
TIMEDecember 23, 2021

Wilhelm Conrad Röntgen discovered the X-ray in Germany in 1895 as he experimented with cathode rays. He used a cathode tube and covered it with a heavy black cloth. Röntgen was astonished to find an incandescent green light projected onto a nearby fluorescent screen.

He called this discovery “X” rays, due to the fact that he had no real idea what these rays were. They were an unknown phenomenon. Intent on his new discovery, he continued to experiment and eventually took a photograph of his wife’s hand, revealing her bones. Röntgen won the Nobel Prize in 1901.

The early use of X-rays rapidly became widespread. It was thought to be an exciting discovery with limitless potential. In fact, in the 1930s and ’40s, shoe stores offered free X-rays of one’s feet so customers could be entertained by seeing the bones in their feet. There were only a few wise scientists who raised some early concerns, such as Thomas Edison and Nikola Tesla. That didn’t stop anyone, even Edison and Tesla,  from experimenting with this new device.

Within the first year of the discovery, more than 1,000 articles were written on the subject. This was unheard of at the time.

Studios opened in cities where a bone portrait could be obtained. The medical community quickly adapted the technology for true medical diagnosis such as identifying broken bones. Prior to that, it was only by feeling, or guessing that doctors would diagnose a broken bone, and many fractures were missed. Within a year of its discovery, X-rays were used on the battlefield to find bullets in wounded soldiers.

Soon after the discovery of X-rays, French scientist Henri Becquerel found another source of penetrating rays by using minerals that he found to be naturally phosphorescent. One of the early minerals he worked with was uranium. Marie Curie and her husband Pierre were intrigued by Becquerel’s discovery. Marie Curie discovered another similar mineral and named it polonium, after her native Poland. The Curies also worked with yet another mineral: radium. Both polonium and radium were more radioactive than uranium.

Marie Curie promoted the use of radium to alleviate suffering from many ailments. She and her husband shared a Nobel Prize in 1903 with Becquerel. No one really knew at the time the serious consequences of so much radioactive exposure. The symptoms were gradual and mild at first. In fact, many scientists at the time thought that the exposure to radioactivity may be beneficial. Radium was used at the time to treat numerous medical conditions, including cancer (which actually did some good), lupus, and nervous diseases.

The 1920s and ’30s offered a lot of radioactive consumer products that promoted the health benefits of radioactivity. There was Doramad Radioactive Toothpaste, a German brand sold before World War II, which contained small amounts of thorium. The ad for Doramad toothpaste read, “Your teeth will shine with radioactive brilliance.”

Another interesting story was that of Radithor, a solution of radium salts, which the developer claimed could provide curative properties to those who ingested it. Industrialist Eben Byers died in 1932 from ingesting it in large quantities throughout 1927 to 1930.

As late as the 1950s, Uranium sand houses were popular in New Mexico, Colorado, and Utah. Patients would sit on benches in a round room where the floor was made of mildly radioactive sand. There were spas that started as early as 1906 in the Czech Republic that had guests bathe in radon-infused water; some of these spas still exist today. Those spas in the early years were known throughout the world, as reported by Matthew Vickery for the BBC.

Radiation spas are still in existence today. There is a spa in Schlema, Germany, in which their bath water contains low levels of radon, which is a radioactive gas formed by the decay of uranium. The belief is that bathing in this “treated” spa water can cure ailments such as rheumatism. Marie Curie died in 1934 from aplastic anemia, most likely caused by her excessive radiation exposure from her work with radium. All of her notebooks are still sealed in a lead-lined box in France due to their radioactivity.

That was then, this is now. The safeguards from current X-ray technology are excellent, however, one must always be aware of what tests are being done and why.

Flying today exposes oneself to natural radiation. A trans-Atlantic flight exposes you to around five times the radiation of a chest X-ray. A mammogram produces about the same as a dozen flights across the Atlantic. CAT scans produce a much greater amount of radiation, which is the simple reason to get one only when the medical indications outweigh any risks. There are newer CAT scan technologies that are already out, one being a photon-counting CT scanner that will not only give better imaging but cut the radiation by up to 45 percent.

Medical advances in imaging have come a long way since the radioactive baths in the early 20th century. The future is even more promising, but it’s good to always think of the possible unintended consequences of the best intentions.

I like to teach the residents that technology should be used to confirm what you suspect, and not decide what you don’t know.

Peter Weiss
Dr. Peter Weiss has been a frequent guest on local and national TV, newspapers, and radio. He was an assistant clinical professor of OB/GYN at the David Geffen School of Medicine at UCLA for 30 years, stepping down so he could provide his clinical services to those in need when the COVID pandemic hit. He was also a national health care adviser for Sen. John McCain’s 2008 presidential campaign.