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Wilhelm Röntgen: The Father of Diagnostic Radiology

Readmikenow has written about various medical conditions. He has previously written a series of articles on Polyarteritis nodosa.

Wilhelm Röntgen

Wilhelm Röntgen

The Discovery of X-Rays

X-rays were considered a form of unidentified radiation before Röntgen discovered how to use them in 1895. They were considered simply rays coming from experimental discharge tubes. These rays were first identified in 1869. Crookes tubes were invented in 1875 and were known for radiating X-rays. Early researchers documented certain types of effects that were caused by them. The Crookes tubes made it possible for free electrons to ionize in the air with DC voltage. This enabled the electrons to move with enough velocity to create X-rays. Röntgen was able to stop the X-rays and create an image with them using a lead shield.

Early Years

Friedrich Conrad Röntgen was born on March 27, 1845. His father was a German merchant. His mother was Dutch. When Röntgen was 3 years old, his family moved to Holland to be with his mother's family. He went to high school in Utrecht, the Netherlands at the Utrecht Technical School. Röntgen did well in his courses for two years. A high school teacher found a caricature of one of the teachers on Röntgen that had been drawn by another student. He was expelled in 1865.

Attending University

Since he didn't have a high school diploma, Röntgen could not attend university classes at Utrecht University as a student, he could only do this as a visitor. He did attend without the proper credentials but was not considered to be a student. Röntgen discovered he could become a student at Polytechnic Institute in Zurich if he was able to pass the entrance examination. He passed and became a mechanical engineering student at the Institute. Röntgen graduated with a Ph.D. in 1869. He was a favorite student of Professor August Kundt. Röntgen followed the professor's academic transfer and began working at the University of Strasbourg.

Academic Career

Röntgen was a lecturer at the University of Strasbourg in 1874. He was made a professor at the Academy of Agriculture in 1875. Röntgen then went back to the University of Strasbourg in 1876 and worked as a professor of physics. At the University of Giessen in 1879, Röntgen was appointed to the chair of physics. In 1888, at the University of Würzburg, Röntgen was given another chair of physics. This was done at the suggestion of the Bavarian government.

Anna Bertha Ludwig

Anna Bertha Ludwig


On July 7, 1872, Röntgen married Anna Bertha Ludwig. Röntgen's father did not approve of Anna as she was six years older than Röntgen and had a humble background. The couple raised one child named Josephine Bertha Ludwig. They adopted Josephine when she was six years old. She was the daughter of Anna's brother who died. The couple remained married for 47 years until the death of Anna in 1919.

Crookes tube

Crookes tube

X-rays Discovered

Röntgen discovered X-rays during an experiment using Crookes tubes and Lenard tubes in November 1895. After studying them, he wrote a report about a new kind of ray. His report was submitted to the Würzburg's Physical-Medical Society journal in December 1895. During his experimentation with Crookes tubes and the cathode rays they produced, he wrapped them in black cardboard. This was so visible light from the tube would not cause any interference and covered the tubes with barium platinocyanide covered in fluorescent screen paint. It produced a faint green glow. This is when Röntgen realized invisible rays were coming from the tube. These rays were able to pass through cardboard to produce the glow. Röntgen then discovered they could also pass through papers and books that were on his desk. He published a paper about his discovery.

The hand of Wilhelm Röntgen's wife

The hand of Wilhelm Röntgen's wife

Eureka Moment

Once Röntgen realized the X-rays were able to pass through opaque objects and created an image on film beneath them, he started taking radiographs of different things. This included a piece of metal and a set of weights. On December 22, 1895, Röntgen made history's first X-ray image. It was of his wife's hand and showed her wedding ring and more. Upon seeing the image, his wife yelled “I have seen my death.”

Wilhelm Röntgen in his laboratory.

Wilhelm Röntgen in his laboratory.

Medical Applications

One of the first things that came into Röntgen's mind after his discovery was its medical applications. He detailed this in his paper about it. News of Röntgen's discovery generated excitement within the medical community. A year after his paper was published, there were over 45 members of the medical community attempting to use Röntgen's discovery for medical purposes. John Hall-Edwards was the first physician to use an X-ray under clinical conditions. In 1896, he used it to take a picture of a needle stuck in an associate's hand. He also used it during a surgical operation in the same year. In the United States, Gilman Frost of Dartmouth College used X-rays to produce an image of a broken bone that had been previously treated. The image was produced on a gelatin photographic plate.

Father of Diagnostic Radiology

In 1896, Röntgen was given the Rumford Medal of the British Royal Society. The University of Würzburg gave him an honorary Doctor of Medicine degree. Between 1895 and 1897, Röntgen published three more papers about his discoveries concerning X-rays. Today, Röntgen is often referred to as the father of diagnostic radiology. It is difficult to measure the contribution his work has made to the world of medicine.

Wilhelm Röntgen's Nobel Prize

Wilhelm Röntgen's Nobel Prize

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Nobel Prize

Röntgen was awarded the 1901 Nobel Prize in Physics. This was done to acknowledge the extraordinary benefits provided to society from his discovery. It also acknowledged that X-rays can be used in the fields of medicine, science, and more.


On February 10, 1923, Röntgen died of carcinoma of the intestines. This is also referred to as colorectal cancer. After his death, all of his scientific correspondence and personal correspondence were destroyed according to Röntgen's wishes. His desire to have this done was detailed in his will.


This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.


Readmikenow (author) on September 18, 2020:

Linda, thanks. He was interesting to write about and research.

Readmikenow (author) on September 18, 2020:

MG, thanks. I agree...a fascinating man.

Linda Crampton from British Columbia, Canada on September 17, 2020:

This is an interesting and informative article. Thank you for sharing the facts about Röntgen and his discoveries.

MG Singh emge from Singapore on September 17, 2020:

He was an interesting character and left a great legacy. We read a lot about him in our physics course.

Readmikenow (author) on September 17, 2020:

Miebakagh, That is possible. I don't think we'll ever know for certain why he made such a request.

Readmikenow (author) on September 17, 2020:

Cheryl, thanks.

Miebakagh Fiberesima from Port Harcourt, Rivers State, NIGERIA. on September 16, 2020:

RMN, I can agree with you. I also reason that all his schoolarly paper if were not destroyed are potential research documents. Perhaps, he was not high rewarded financially by the mecical world?

Cheryl E Preston from Roanoke on September 16, 2020:

I had no idea Xrays went back so far and had such an interesting beginning. Thank you for writing such an informative article.

Readmikenow (author) on September 16, 2020:

Liz, thanks. I agree with you.

Readmikenow (author) on September 16, 2020:

Miebakagh, thanks. I think you raise a valid point. You can't help but wonder his motivation.

Liz Westwood from UK on September 16, 2020:

This is an interesting biographical article. What a shame that all his correspondence was destroyed after he died.

Miebakagh Fiberesima from Port Harcourt, Rivers State, NIGERIA. on September 16, 2020:

He deserves all the honors. But his destroying all his papers is puzzling and annoying.

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