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To tell the truth

Yale Medicine Magazine, 1998 - Summer


To the Editor:
I came across your very nice article on the history of radiology at Yale [Medicine's new eyes, Winter/Spring 1998]. I applaud your department, its innovations and your enthusiasm for its capabilities. At the same time, I question the statements you make on attributing “the first X-ray image in the United States” to Yale physicist Arthur W. Wright. Sometimes issues like this are a matter of semantics. Although we attribute the “discovery” of X-rays and the first image to Roentgen, Crookes (and others) actually made X-rays and inadvertently exposed X-ray plates in his laboratory well before Roentgen developed an understanding of what was going on. As you may be aware, Crookes thought the gelatin plates were defective and repeatedly returned them to Ilford, England's largest manufacturer of photographic plates, with a vitriolic note. It took a scientist of Roentgen's caliber to realize what was occurring and to publish an account of his experiments. Hence, we attribute this great discovery to Roentgen.

It is much the same with the first (clinical) X-ray in the United States. After reading a detailed description of Roentgen's discovery of the X-ray in the New York Sun, a prominent local man and a member of the Dartmouth scientific society, Howard H. Langell, inspired Frank Austin, an assistant in the Dartmouth physics laboratory, to test a dozen or so Crookes vacuum tubes in the Dartmouth collection to see if any of them would produce X-rays. It was probably on or before the very date you describe, Jan. 27, that Langell and Austin produced images of coins and keys in a wooden box and perhaps even of Austin's hand. They then reported this event to Edwin Frost, a professor of astronomy at Dartmouth.

On Monday, Feb. 3, Edwin's brother, Gilman Frost, M.D., chief of staff at the Mary Hitchcock Memorial Hospital, brought 14-year-old Eddie McCarthy to the physics building at Dartmouth college. Eddie had fallen a week or so before while skating on the Connecticut River and had a clinical diagnosis of a “colles” fracture. Utilizing the tube that Austin had experimented with, the Frost brothers proceeded to produce an X-ray of McCarthy's wrist showing the fracture. Frost reported this in an article dated Feb. 4 and submitted it to the journal Science. Reports in the same issue of Science by Drs. Pupin of Columbia and Goodspeed of Pennsylvania described clinical X-rays that were made three and five days later.

If Yale's physicist, Arthur Wright, pre-empted the Dartmouth group, it remains unreported and unsubstantiated, at least in the scientific literature. The Dartmouth group went one step further. The taking of the first clinical X-ray in America was captured by photographer Henry H. Barrett and so remains the first scientific experiment recorded by photographic means.

In a word, from Vox Clamantis in deserto, “strong on the 'Lux', weak on the 'Veritas'.”

Peter K. Spiegel, M.D.
Professor and Chair
Department of Diagnostic Radiology
Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center
Lebanon, N.H.