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History of Radiology

A brief overview

“If only there was some way of making the human body transparent like a jelly-fish!” The exclamation of a young country doctor faced with an awkward patient demanding confirmation of his diagnosis comes from a story published under the pseudonym Philander by Ludwig Hopf in 1892. Scarcely had the doctor spoken when a young woman appeared, surrounded by light. Electra, for that was her name, handed the doctor a box whose magic light entered the human body, making its interior life visible. With the help of this gift, made “for the good of men and women”, the doctor was immediately able to confirm his diagnosis and received his fee. Not content with this immediate success, he continued to investigate the mysterious light and succeeded in producing its agent artificially. This he passed on to his fellows as a gift for suffering mankind with the words: “A new and glorious age has dawned for us physicians.”
Three years later the medical fairytale Electra came true. On November 8, 1895 the physicist Wilhelm Conrad Röntgen, born here in Lennep, while investigating electrical discharges in rarefied gases, observed a hitherto unknown, invisible, but extremely penetrating form of radiation.
Medicine was indeed revolutionized by this discovery. The new diagnostic tool allowed the human body to be opened without dissection, so that anatomy and physiology could be studied on living patients. A storm of enthusiasm greeted Röntgen’s discovery, and the new age of medicine was euphorically celebrated.
Initially X-ray techniques, frequently involving lengthy exposure, were used to examine fractures, foreign bodies (e.g. bullets and pieces of shrapnel during World War I) and pathological skeletal conditions. The wider physiological application of the technology had to wait for the development of appropriate apparatus and methods.
This took time, one of the common early difficulties being the description of the diagnostic results in their causal relations – in other words the identification of a recognizable disease. The empirical science of radiology was born, and it was by immersion in this science that doctors gradually learned to read and interpret the pictures from their X-ray machines.
Step by step with progress on this front came constant improvements in X-ray equipment and techniques. Greater radiation intensities were achieved and exposure time to X-rays was reduced.
Modern radiology is a highly specialized branch of medicine. Diagnostic instruments like computer assisted tomography (CAT), magnetic resonance imaging (MRI), positron emission tomography (PET), and ultrasonography have opened up new frontiers in image-based representation that now reach to the molecular level.

For further information on the history of diagnostic radiology and radiotherapy go to Extras/Download: 100 years of diagnostic radiology or 100 years of radiotherapy