Wilhelm Roentgen was a German scientist and inventor known for discovering the X-Ray. He went to school in the Netherlands but did not complete his secondary school education following expulsion on shaky grounds. However, even without a high school education, he attended the University of Federal Polytechnic Institute in Zurich. He eventually earned a PhD in mechanical engineering and started his academic career at the University of Strassburg.
He served as the chairperson of the physics departments in various universities, as he worked as a professor. At the height of his career, the planned to emigrate to the United States, but that did not happen because of the outbreak of the First World War.
Wilhelm Roentgen discovered the x-ray when he was experimenting with the external effects of different vacuum tubes when an electrical discharge passes through them. He was experimenting with a glass gas built Crookes tube that produces fluorescent light in high voltage current. He noticed that although a thick black cardboard covered the tube, it still produced a greenish fluorescent colour several feet away.
He hypothesised that a new form of a ray, which he referred to as x-ray, or an unknown ray, penetrated the cardboard and produced the fluorescent colour. He experimented with the ray further and was able to produce an X-ray image of the hand of his wife, Bertha. The bones in her hand and the ring on her hand are visible in the picture. He wrote several papers about the discovery and during presentations to other scientists, x-rayed the hand of a well-known anatomist for demonstration.
X-rays are a form of electromagnetic radiation made of the same photons as the visible light, radio waves, and microwaves. The only difference is that the x-rays have shorter wavelengths and much higher frequency and therefore can penetrate solid objects that include the human tissue. This ability to penetrate a solid object is what makes them useful in medicine for diagnosis as physicians can probe what is inside the human tissue without necessary conducting an exploratory surgery.
An x-ray image is created when a beam passes through the patient and is picked on the other side by a detector, creating an image. Some of the beams that enter the body are absorbed but the one that passes through casts a shadow, which is responsible for creating the image.
Contribution of invention in medicine
Wilhelm Roentgen, a German physicist, invented the x-ray in 1895. Although he did not fully understand the import of his invention, x-ray changed the practice of medicine forever and contributed to his eventual awarding of the Nobel Prize in physics. In medicine, the invention is especially useful for its use in the treatment of cancer.
Before radiation therapy was used in the treatment of cancer, the primary method of treating cancer was surgery in a process that was painful and risky. Classical Rome and Greece also carried out similar operations. In the second century, the Roman doctor Galen describes incurable masses that would return even after a successful removal via surgery. In the history of medicine, cancer appeared hopeless and had been described as such since classical era to the middle ages.
The story of cancer started to change after the invention of the x-ray. At the time of the discovery, Wilhelm Roentgen was experimenting with electricity. The “energy rays” or the X-ray can penetrate through the flesh and bone, and the implication of the findings was soon clear to the medical community or the larger scientific community. A few years after the discovery of the x-ray, a French scientist discovered a special kind of x-ray known as gamma rays.
The element that emitted the gamma rays was radium, which the scientist named Marie Curie further identified its properties. The discoveries of Marie Curie and Wilhelm Roentgen allowed for the development of the first diagnostic X-rays in 1896; therefore, doctors could for the first time spot cancerous growth and other malformation without the use of exploratory surgery. Emil Grubble used radiation to treat breast cancer in a patient.
Over the last few decades, radiation therapy has undergone massive development and improvement. A lower radiation dose over a period of weeks was experimented with, and it became the standard method of treating cancer. In the United States, the discovery of linear accelerators allowed for a new way of penetrating into the skin deeper without causing too much damage. The method is further refined with the development of Intensity Modulated Radiation Therapy (IMRT) which is computer controlled and more refined method of delivering radiation to the cancerous cells. Image-Guided Radiation Therapy or IGRT can now give doctors current image of the patient instead of waiting for too long, sometimes weeks as it used to happen in the past.
A medical imaging technique such as the CT scan relies on the original discovery by Wilhelm Roentgen but instead of sending the x-rays in one direction only, beams are directed from different directions and angles, and therefore the image produced is sharper and two-dimensional of the interior of the body. In medical diagnosis, CT scans play a huge role. A recent study found that after a CT scan of the chest or the abdomen, physicians change their diagnosis more than half of the time, suggesting that the scan makes diagnosis accurate. Accuracy in diagnosis is important in healthcare because it is known that wrong diagnosis and treatment is a source of mortality for hundreds of thousands of people.
CT scan, therefore, have saved millions of lives and improved the quality of lives of millions more. The scans save people from unnecessary surgeries and make treatment faster before a condition worsen. According to the leading specialists in internal medicine, the absence of the CT scan would make it difficult to practice medicine. If a patient has abdominal pain, it takes minutes to conduct a CT scan and physician can after that quickly determine whether the patient is just suffering from joint pain or has appendicitis. In the olden days, such a diagnosis was a trial and error procedure. Similarly, doctors can determine the source of a headache by just conducting a CT scan. The scan is so popular and lives saving that more than 80 million scans are performed annually in the United States. In other countries, many more scans are conducted, underlying the importance of Wilhelm Roentgen invention.
The small world has been invisible realm to the human eye, but x-rays have allowed scientists to map such world using a technique known as X-ray crystallography. Molecular structures can be imaged using the method, and some of the breakthroughs in medicine such as the discovery of the structure of the DNA were achieved using the method.
The universe itself is also more visible thanks to the x-rays. In the 60s, x-ray astronomy was not possible because almost all the x-rays from the space and universe are absorbed in the atmosphere. However, following the use of satellites and rockets mounted with x-ray detectors, scientists have discovered high-energy x-ray emissions from distant but powerful stars that are no longer visible.
One class of stars detected via x-ray is the neutron stars and the black holes that are denser than ordinary visible stars by more than a trillion times, but they do not emit visible light. The x-ray they emit however allows scientists to map their presence. The discovery of the black holes is intriguing due to its nature, mass, and ability to capture all light. It could not have been possible to verify some of the predictions of theoretical physics without the use of x-rays.
Life is better due to the invention of the x-ray. It has application in different fields, but its most tangible impact has been on the medical field. It allows physicians to conduct scans quickly and diagnose patients. The invention is among the greatest of all time as it has made life better and easier for all humanity.