On Wednesday this week, 8 November 2023, three organisations – the Radiological Society of North America (RSNA), the European Society of Radiology (ESR), and the American College of Radiology (ACR) – celebrated the International Day of Radiology, the 12th time this had occurred. The purpose of the day is to “build greater awareness of the value that radiology contributes to safe patient care and understanding the vital role” played by healthcare professionals. The significance of the day is that it acknowledges the discovery in 1895 by Wilhelm Röntgen of X-rays, a technology that launched the field of medical imaging as a specialisation.
On that fateful day 128 years ago in Würzburg, Germany, Röntgen was studying the trajectory of an electric current passing through a gas of low pressure. Working in a darkened laboratory, he discovered that if the cathode tube was shrouded in a black enclosure, a cardboard screen painted with barium platinocynide started to fluoresce. Röntgen convinced his wife to place her hand in the path of the invisible rays over a photographic plate. The resulting image revealed the bones of her hand and her gold wedding ring – and the field of medical imaging was born.
It was just six years later, on 10 December 1901, that Wilhelm Conrad Röntgen (seen left) was awarded the inaugural Nobel Prize in Physics “in recognition of the extraordinary services he has rendered by the discovery of the remarkable rays subsequently named after him.” As we pointed out last year, there were two other scientists whose contributions were ignored by the selection committee – Ivan Puluj from Ukraine, and Nikola Tesla from Serbia. Such is life.
X-rays would again feature in 1979 when the Nobel Prize in Medicine was jointly awarded to South African-born physicist Allan Cormack and British engineer Godfrey Hounsfield for “the development of computer assisted tomography.” And then, in 2003, two basic scientists – Paul Lauterbur and Peter Mansfield – shared the Nobel Prize in Medicine for “their discoveries concerning magnetic resonance imaging.”
The next year, when researching my biography of Allan Cormack, I contacted Lauterbur and asked him about a workshop entitled Techniques of Three-Dimensional Reconstruction that he and Cormack had organised in 1974. He told me, “We toyed briefly with the idea of a follow-up meeting, until we realised that, unusually for scientific meetings, the first one had been so successful that another one was not needed – like the proverbial six blind men, we had all recognized the elephant together.” And so, the title of my book was decided: Imagining the Elephant (click here to download).