By Richard P. Holm, MD
It is easy to understand why the field of orthopedics and the orderly treatment of fractures greatly improved during the last few years of the 1800s when X-rays were discovered. But, in the beginning, it was hard to anticipate all the implications X-rays and radiation would have.
In 1895 while working with a cathode ray tube in his laboratory in Germany, Wilhelm Conrad Röntgen noted a fluorescent glow in crystals positioned a few feet away. He noted that while metal and bone seemed to block the passing of this glow-causing ray, black paper or soft human tissue did not. Roentgen named his discovery X-radiation or X-ray and illustrated utility right off the bat with the famous picture of the bones of his wife Bertha’s hand on a photographic plate.
After announcing his discovery, the scientific community virtually exploded with interest. X-rays were defined as electromagnetic waves of the same nature as light, invisible to the eye, yet with the astonishing ability to pass through solid matter. Within six months after Röntgen’s announcement, battlefield surgeons were using the new X-ray in finding bullets in wounded soldiers. Not much later, after improvements with X-ray tubes, physicians were using so called roentgenograms to accurately set bones and dentists to improve their work on teeth.
At about the same time a French scientist noted that photographic plates all wrapped in black paper placed in a drawer became exposed as if to light when pieces of pitchblende, later called uraninite, (a type of uranium ore) was in the same drawer. Two years later, in 1898, the wife and husband scientific team Marie and Pierre Curie further refined from pitchblende the elements: uranium, named after the Greek god Uranus; polonium, named after Marie’s homeland of Poland; and radium named after Latin word ‘radius’ for beam or ray, like the spokes of a wheel.
We’ve learned that the waves (or gamma rays) coming from these radioactive elements are about 10,000 times shorter than X-rays, which in turn are 6000 times shorter than that of visible light.
The dangerous effects of radiation from X-rays and gamma rays were not discovered until many of the scientists working in this realm started losing limbs, having non-healing ulcers, or developing life-threatening cancers. Marie Curie herself lost her life prematurely to a depleted bone marrow condition called aplastic anemia.
But the other side of the story brings to light all the uses for these short wave forms but especially how both X-rays and gamma radiation have proven so beneficial in diagnosing and treating the illnesses of the human condition.