Monday, 1 February 2010

The Death Inside

This morning I've been listening to yet another fascinating piece of radio from the BBC.  Images That Changed The World is a series of 15 minute programmes presented by Dr Mark Lythgoe examining the history of medical imaging, and how five leaps in imaging technology impacted popular culture at the time.

The first X-ray image of the hand of Röntgen's wife (who exclaimed something along the lines of "It's like seeing the death inside me"), taken from the mesmerising Dream Anatomy gallery at the NIH's NLM

When in 1896 Wilhelm Conrad Röntgen presented his discovery of X-rays, the ghostly depiction of his wife's hand which illustrated the work took only days to reach newspaper and magazine covers around the world.  Never before had the deep, delicate structures within the body been seen in their living context, and the new technology went straight to the public's imagination. X-ray machines were installed in big department stores and fairgrounds, and the public flocked to have their pictures taken.  There were even fads for X-ray family portraits, and the possibility of buying lead-lined underwear to protect a lady's modesty.

Coin operated X-ray machine c1900, taken from A Short History of Amusement Arcades

An anecdotal tale of a woman's diamond engagement ring being revealed as a fake or 'paste' gem led me off at slight tangent.  I've heard the term before many times in venerable works of detective fiction, but the word 'paste' did not call to mind anything you could mistake for the sparkle of finest emeralds.  It turns out that 'paste' gems are a form of heavy glass with a high refractive index, which when cut well can imitate gemstones.  'Paste' refers to the method of manufacture: powdered silica, soda and lead or other metal oxides are combined with water to ensure even mixing, before being heated in a kiln until fused.  [This page on gem creation is a good read if you have any interest in jewellery and gemology.] A more common name for a paste gem which you might recognise is 'rhinestone', widely used in costume jewellery.

 Radiograph of a diamond ring from Myth busting – in the world of x-rays

Being amorphous, fused glasses rather than single, grown crystals of gemstone, paste gems have subtly different optical properties, meaning that the expert can distinguish them just by looking (an important plot point!).  Even an untrained eye, however, can spot when the diamond they expect to appear as a faint smudge appears completely opaque in an X-Ray image - hence the woman's outrage at the X-ray image's revelation. 


Within a year of the announcement of Röntgen's announcement reaching Britain, school student Russell Reynolds completed the building of his own X-ray apparatus.  Home machines like these became widespread, with enthusiastic amateurs able to bring cutting-edge scientific equipment to their parlours.  Experiencing the glee of examining everything within reach with a microscope makes it easy to imagine excited Victorians X-raying hands, feet, cats, frogs, and indeed anything that they could get their hands on.

Unfortunately however this orgy of discovery came at a price - the following years revealed the dangers of overexposure to the ionising radiation - burns, ulcers, cancers and amputations.  The grisly vignette of a conference of radiologists unable to cut up their food due to the loss of one or both hands puts a chilling dampener on the joy of discovery.

X-ray images revolutionised medicine by enabling the harder structures within the body to be viewed non-intrusively for the first time, revealing everything from broken bones to tuberculosis.  Understandably, the X-ray machine above has been selected by curators at the Science Museum in London as the item in its collection that had made the biggest impact on human history. 

Nowadays X-ray images of the human body are familiar, but along with less familiar portraits of plants, animals and everyday objects the can be fascinating and beautiful, as well as instructive.  I highly recommend you check out the incredible work of Albert Koetsier and Nick Veasey, but be warned you may be there some time.

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