A new kind of ray: The history of radiography

In 1895, Wilhelm Conrad Röntgen discovered the X-ray and presented his manuscript, On a New Kind of Ray, to the Würzburg Physical Medical Institute. We look at how technology has advanced since then.

Early doctors in radiology were involved in both therapy and diagnosis, but today’s medical professionals specialise in one or the other. Dr John-Henry Corbett, a radiologist at Van Dyk & Associates Diagnostic Radiologists at Mediclinic Bloemfontein, explains the radiologist’s role today is interpreting imaging investigations while the radiographer is involved in image acquisition.

Role of radiography

“Like most special examinations, radiography is most effective when the appropriate imaging modality for the specific clinical scenario is used,” he says. In other words, the right tools are necessary for the specific investigation at hand.

Clinicians derive anatomical and functional information from radiography imaging to diagnose conditions; evaluate the extent of a disease; and monitor complications and response to treatment, which leads to correct diagnosis and effective treatment. This means fewer complications, decreased morbidity and mortality, and faster recovery by extension. “This has economic implications for the patient and society as a whole,” Corbett adds.

Timeline of the X-ray

1895 – Wilhelm Conrad Röntgen discovered the X-ray. One week after his accidental discovery, he took an X-ray photograph of his wife’s hand, which clearly revealed her wedding ring and her bones.

1913 – William D. Coolidge invented what would later be known as Coolidge tubes, which create X-rays through the use of a vacuum tube. These tubes create continuous X-ray emissions and continue to be used for X-rays today.

1934 – G. Holst created the first successful infrared converter tube. This was the first image intensifier tube. This technology is still used today to help the function of medical imaging devices. These tubes convert low levels of light from various wavelengths into visible quantities of light at a single wavelength.

1971 – Godfrey Hounsfield develops computed tomography (CT) scanning technology at the EMI central research laboratories. CT scans take a series of X-rays of a subject from all angles. A computer creates an image from the various X-rays. This enables doctors to see inside of a piece of tissue without invasive surgery.

1973 – American chemist Paul Lauterbur produces the first magnetic resonance image (MRI) using nuclear magnetic resonance data and computer calculations of tomography.

1977 – The first MRI body scan is performed on a human using an MRI machine developed by American doctors Raymond Damadian, Larry Minkoff and Michael Goldsmith.

1990s – Ultrasound becomes routine in pregnancy to check foetal development.

Where to from here?

There is a continuous development of the imaging technologies to improve the functional information they provide. Traditionally, radiography was seen as only providing anatomical/structural information, which still remains of great importance, but the addition of functional information adds a new dimension.

The increasing population has increased the need for radiography. This has significant cost implications for the health sector but hopefully radiography will continue to deliver cost-effective imaging solutions to all patients.

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