Vision of the Gods

  • Photo courtesy of The Life Picture Collection/Getty Images
    German physicist Wilhelm Röntgen, pictured circa 1896, discovered X-ray imaging while performing unrelated experiments on cathode-ray tubes. He later received the first Nobel Prize for Physics in 1901 for his breakthrough. Photo courtesy of The Life Picture Collection/Getty Images
  • Pietro Pezzati
    A portrait of Walter Dodd in Massachusetts General Hospital. The portrait depicts him concealing his radiation-damaged hands. Pietro Pezzati
  • Photo courtesy of The Life Picture Collection/Getty Images
  • Pietro Pezzati
<< Back to Health & Wellness, October 2014
  • Sheila Gibson Stoodley

Medicine’s first superpower—X-ray vision—has led to improved imaging techniques that allow for deeper looks inside the mysteries of the human body.

German physicist Wilhelm Röntgen’s landmark 1895 scientific paper might never have become an instant worldwide sensation if he had not sent it with a photograph. When submitting his paper, titled On a New Kind of Rays, the keen photographer included an image of the skeletonized hand of his wife, Bertha, her wedding ring appearing as a dark sphere upon her bony finger. He dubbed the invisible force “X-rays,” seizing on “X” because it serves as the mathematical symbol for the unknown.

The photo of Bertha’s hand underscored the power of Röntgen’s find. For the first time, doctors could see inside the body without slicing it open. Prior to 1895, medicine had few tools for viewing the body’s inner workings, and all were flawed. “We could listen, we could touch, we could take a history, but we were limited,” says Elliot Fishman, MD, director of diagnostic imaging at Johns Hopkins in Baltimore. “We were basically sitting in the dark. We had to go in there and look [through exploratory surgery] or we often didn’t make a diagnosis until it was too late,” he says, alluding to autopsy.

So great was the desire to view the living interior of the body prior to Röntgen’s discovery that a few unfortunates became medical celebrities for gruesome injuries that unveiled certain secrets. Alexis St. Martin never dreamed that the worst part of suffering a musket shot to the abdomen in June 1822 would be a guinea pig–like relationship with the physician who treated him, but that is precisely what happened. William Beaumont, a U.S. Army surgeon posted near Mackinac Island, Mich., where St. Martin’s accident occurred, took interest in the 20-year-old after he healed in a manner that formed a gastric fistula—essentially a window on his stomach. Beaumont engaged St. Martin as a servant whose duties involved allowing him to perform experiments on how the digestive system worked. He withstood these indignities for years, but ultimately went back to his native Quebec and, until the end of his life, declined Beaumont’s entreaties to return. 

Vermont railroad crew foreman Phineas Gage became a medical legend in 1848 when a blasting powder mishap launched a 13.25-pound, 43-inch iron tamping rod into his left cheek and out the top of his head. The 25-year-old survived, but he was never the same. John Martyn Harlow, a doctor who treated him, noted that Gage once possessed “an iron will as well as an iron frame,” but had seemingly lost his grip on civility. “He is fitful, irreverent, indulging at times in the grossest profanity (which was not previously his custom), manifesting but little deference for his fellows,” Dr. Harlow wrote, adding that the post-blast Gage was “radically changed, so decidedly that his friends and acquaintances said he was ‘no longer Gage.’” These 19th-century observations gave tantalizing insights into the mysteries of the brain. 

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