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Conservation Notes: “I have seen my death!” and the very first X-ray

July 28th, 2015

By Katharine Whitman, Conservator, Photography

(photo at right) U.S. Military,  Operation Priscilla, taken at the moment of the shockwave, 1957.   / Camera Crew at Exact Moment of Shockwave Arrival, Nevada Test Site 1957. Gelatin silver print.

(photo at right) U.S. Military, Operation Priscilla, taken at the moment of the shockwave, 1957. / Camera Crew at Exact Moment of Shockwave Arrival, Nevada Test Site 1957. Gelatin silver print.

There’s something really amazing inside the AGO’s walls right now: a piece of medical history and the forerunner of technology used today. In our exhibition Camera Atomica, visitors can see a positive image of the first X-ray ever made. Wilhelm Conrad Röntgen, a physics professor in Worzburg, Bavaria, created the gelatine silver glass plate image, what would become known as the first “röntgenogram.” It captures the hand of Röntgen’s wife, Anna Bertha, and her wedding ring (the large dark circle). When she saw the image she is said to have exclaimed, “I have seen my death!”

Röntgen’s lab records were burned at his request when he died, and many people have speculated about the sequence of events leading to his discovery. Röntgen discovered a barium platinocyanide screen fluorescing in his laboratory while working on an experiment some distance away. He was intrigued and, leaving aside for a time his duties to the university and to his students, Röntgen spent the next six weeks in his laboratory, working alone and sharing nothing with his colleagues. He theorized that some kind of radiation must be travelling in the space. Röntgen dubbed it “X-radiation” for its unexplained nature. The term X-radiation or X-ray stuck, although it is still sometimes referred to as the “Röntgen ray” in German-speaking countries.

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News about the discovery spread rapidly throughout the world. X-rays were advertised as the new scientific wonder and were seized upon by entertainers. Studios opened to take “bone portraits,” further fuelling public interest and imagination. Circus patrons could view their own skeletons and were given pictures of their own bony hands wearing silhouetted jewellery. Poems about X-rays appeared in popular journals, and the metaphorical use of the rays popped up in political cartoons, short stories and advertisements. Many people were fascinated by this discovery. Some people, however, feared that it would allow strangers to look through walls and doors and eliminate privacy. Detectives touted the use of Röntgen devices in following unfaithful spouses, and lead underwear was manufactured to foil attempts at peeking with “X-ray glasses.” Much as the term “laser” is used (or mis-used) in advertising today, companies started using the term “X-ray” to market their products: it was the new, exciting technology.

Ad from an 1896 issue of  Cosmopolitan for a headache remedy (Kohler’s Antidote) by Kohler Manufacturing, Baltimore, Md.

Ad from an 1896 issue of  Cosmopolitan for a headache remedy (Kohler’s Antidote) by Kohler Manufacturing, Baltimore, Md.

Röntgen received numerous accolades for his work, including the first Nobel Prize in physics in 1901, yet he remained modest and never tried to patent his discovery, believing that his work should be available to everyone. His discovery was labelled a medical miracle, and X-rays soon became an important diagnostic tool in medicine, allowing doctors to see inside the human body for the first time without surgery.

Robert Frank’s 1979 work Halifax Infirmary, another loan in the exhibition, depicts a man’s chemotherapy treatments while battling cancer.Throughout the work and particularly in the centre section where there is no patient, there is a bright light in the window, harkening back to the nuclear glow of radiation. While nuclear medicine began with Röntgen’s discovery of X-rays, it continued with cancer treatments in the 1930s. Nuclear medicine wasn’t recognized as a potential medical speciality until 1946, when Sam Seidlin wrote about using radioactive iodine to successfully treat a patient with advanced thyroid cancer in the Journal of the American Medical Association.

The X-ray image and Frank’s photo are on loan to the AGO for Camera Atomica, running July 8 to November 15, 2015.


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