Written by in section: Medical Technology > Diagnostics
Medically Reviewed by Dr. Aj Thomas MS, MBA & Updated on May 3, 2016
Medical X-ray - 7 little known facts that will surprise you
Flickr/Bedhi Wixem

What is a Medical X-ray?

The medical use of x-ray has revolutionized the field of diagnostic medicine. X-rays are useful in diagnosing abnormalities inside the human body. It offers a non-invasive and painless way to detect broken bones, dental problems, tumors and foreign objects. X-rays are a form of electromagnetic radiation. It produces a shadow like image on structures like bones and some organs.


1: The Accident

Right: Wilhelm Conrad Röntgen Left:  His lab in Würzburg, Germany, 1895. © Deutsches Röntgen-Museum
Right: Wilhelm Conrad Röntgen Left: His lab in Würzburg, Germany, 1895
© Deutsches Röntgen-Museum


In 1895, X-ray was discovered accidently by the German physicist Wilhelm Conrad Röntgen in his lab in Würzburg, Germany, while working with vacuum tubes.

Röntgen did not fully understand the newly discovered source of radiation and therefore named it as X-radiation where the letter "X" stood for the unknown.

There is much to do, and I am busy, very busy.

- Wilhelm Conrad Röntgen


2: The very first Nobel Prize in physics


X-ray was also known as "Röntgen Rays" in many parts of the world. Röntgen was awarded the first Nobel Prize in physics in 1901 for his discovery. Despite interest from the Röntgen family, he refused to take out a patent in his name for the discovery. He wanted the scientific community and society to gain the full benefits of his invention.


3: First X-ray (Roentgenogram)

Left: Wilhelm Conrad Röntgen x-ray machine. Right: First x-ray picture
Left: Wilhelm Conrad Röntgen x-ray machine. Right: First x-ray picture. 
© Deutsches Röntgen-Museum


The first x-ray picture ever taken was that of Röntgen's wife Anna Bertha's hand. When she saw the picture of her own skeleton, she was not impressed and remarked "I have seen my death!"

We shall see what we shall see. We have the start now; The developments will follow in time

- Wilhelm Conrad Röntgen


4: Birth of Radiotherapy

In 1896, Emil Grubbe was a medical student at Hahnemann Medical College in Chicago. He suggested using x-rays on a breast cancer patient named Rose Lee who was critically ill.

He had got the idea after observing the effects on his own hands after using the x-ray machine. The result of his experiment on the patient Rose Lee was encouraging. There was a prominent reduction in the cancerous growth in the patient's breast. This experiment leads to the invention of radiotherapy.


5: Hair removal using X-rays

Hair removal using X-rays


During mid-1920s, A company named Tricho Sales Corporation stated producing an x-ray machine based on that use of the Cornell tube that could remove superfluous hair.

Advertised as the Tricho System, the treatment procedure was marketed as a very safe and innovative approach for getting rid of unwanted facial hair.

The initial results were very promising and the company through their partners went on to treat thousands of clients.

Later, complains started pouring in regarding sever skin problems and facial disfiguration due to various cancerous growth. The company closed its business by 1932, but the systems remained operational for many more years despite strict warnings issued by the health authorities.


6: X-ray Shoe Fitter

X-ray Shoe Fitter


X-ray shoe fitting machines (Pedoscope) were installed in shoe stores from the 1920s till early 1970s. It was a very popular machine among customers and the children loved to play with these machines.

These machines started to disappear slowly during the 2nd half of the 20th century due to the growing concerns about the safety of these machines. Limited ban on the use of machine in the 1950s accelerated the process of its demise.

In reality these machine were more of a marketing gimmick. There was no true value in terms of usability for these machines in the shoe shops. It was difficult to accurately judge the correct fit using these machines because of the simple fact that true fit was dependent on the flesh volume. It was difficult to judge the true borders through this machine.


7: Handheld Fluoroscope

Handheld Fluoroscope


Immediately after the discovery of x-rays, in the year 1896 Thomas Edison created a handheld x-ray machine that became a huge success among doctors.

The procedure to use the fluoroscope required the doctors to warm up the tube and then hold their hand between the tube and fluoroscope. Once the doctor saw their own finger bones shadow, the device was considered ready for use. The patient was introduced between the tube and the fluoroscope. If required an x-ray photo was also exposed to later develop the image.

These initial models had exposed doctors and supporting staff to repeated doses of radiation. Even the patients start to experience the ill effects of radiation due to the fact that these devices did not have protective shielding build into them. Later models started implementing lead shields for better protection.  Despite these changes, the doctors were exposed to harmful radiation through the viewfinder windows of these devices.


Radiation effect

The effect of x-rays on human body is cumulative in nature. Diagnostic investigations done using modern x-ray machines are relatively very safe without any adverse effects. CAT scanners can take thousands of x-rays in one single procedure to produce a 3D image of the area being examined. The resulting radiation does is also much higher than a normal x-ray which takes a single image in 2D.


Protection from radiation

After the discovery of x-rays, it was widely assumed that that this new source of radiation was safe. Most of the early scientists experimenting with the technology received very high doses of radiation which cumulated over the period of repetitive experiments. Many started seeing the adverse effects of radiation which now we know as radiation sickness.

Wilhelm Conrad Röntgen was lucky enough to have used protective lead shields and a zinc box routinely during his experiments. This was done in order to protect the photographic plates he had in his lab during these experiments. This ultimately shielded him from the negative effects of receiving multiple does of electromagnetic radiation from his x-ray experiments. Marie Curie’s work would later contribute to the development of safety procedures in the field of radiology.


Risks for Pregnancy

Pregnant women should avoid getting x-rays and should only use the procedure in case of an emergency.

Abdominal x-rays are to be completely avoided. It is generally safe to x-ray body part like the extremities, head and the chest provided that proper use of protective shielding is used to protect the abdominal area where the baby is rapidly developing.

Very high doses of radiation from repetitive x-ray examinations could increase the risk factors of certain birth-defects for the developing baby. The baby is also exposed to higher risk of developing leukemia (blood cancer) later in life.

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  • Last Reviewed on:May 3, 2016
  • Medically Reviewed by:Dr. Aj Thomas MS MBA
  • References:


    1. History teaches: Quackery – hard to kill. People – not so much. | Left Brain Right Brain on WordPress.com. http://leftbrainrightbrain.co.uk/2007/09/29/history-teaches-quackery-hard-to-kill-people-not-so-much/
    2. roentgenmuseum.de: Startseite. http://www.roentgenmuseum.de/
    3. Afflictor.com · Thomas Edison. http://afflictor.com/tag/thomas-edison/
    4. Patterson Hand-Held Fluoroscope (ca. 1940s). https://www.orau.org/ptp/collection/Radiology/pattersonhandfluorotwo.htm

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