Whispering Pines: Images of the Invisible

 

In his latest column, John Cross ’76 writes that “science and medicine were transformed in the first few months of 1896, and Bowdoin College made significant contributions to the ‘first wave’ of x-ray research.”

A year and a half after the September 1894 dedication of Searles Science Building, scientists at Bowdoin were at the forefront of research on the mysterious “X-rays” that had been described by German researcher Wilhelm Röentgen. Röentgen noticed that that when a tube used to create cathode rays was enclosed in a light-proof box and high-voltage was applied, a prepared plate several feet away displayed a faint fluorescent glow. Some energy was escaping from the tube. The rays penetrated the box and other substances, including human flesh. The first photograph (“Röentgenogram”) was a blurred image of the left hand of Anna Röentgen, the scientist’s wife, complete with her wedding ring. Upon seeing the bones of her hand, Frau Röentgen is reported to have exclaimed that she had just seen her own death. A paper on the discovery was published on December 28, 1895. The discovery of x-rays would later win Röentgen the first Nobel Prize in Physics in 1901.

The news spread with unprecedented speed to the scientific community and the popular press, thanks to transatlantic telegraph cables and a thirst for stories about the latest scientific wonders. Within a few weeks, American physicists announced that experiments were underway at colleges and universities with access to the expensive “Crookes Tubes” that produced cathode rays. Throughout the month of January of 1896 newspapers reported almost daily on x-ray experiments being conducted by Thomas Edison, the best-known scientist in America, and his plans to meet the challenge of newspaper publisher William Randolph Hearst to obtain an x-ray image of a living brain. It was a widely publicized claim that faded rapidly in the face of the technological challenges of obtaining an image of soft tissue encased in a bony globe.

The month of February was especially busy. Dartmouth scientists used x-rays in treating the broken arm of a 14-year-old on February 3, 1896, at Mary Hitchcock Hospital. On the 7th in Montreal, an x-ray was used to settle a court case of an alleged shooting, when McGill physicians used an x-ray to locate and remove a bullet from a man’s leg. On the 11th Columbia researcher Michael Pupin placed an Edison fluoroscope on top of a photographic plate, shortening the time required to x-ray the hand of a man whose shotgun had discharged unexpectedly, depositing 40 bits of buckshot into a complex architecture of bone and tendons. In Vienna, x-rays revealed the presence of a bird skeleton contained within the linen wrappings of an Egyptian mummy. A Cleveland merchant urged customers to “apply the X rays to our shoes and you’ll find them well built and honestly made.” The Duluth News Tribune tweaked a rival newspaper: “The Herald suggests that ‘even the x rays could not discover’ any fresh news in the morning paper…The x rays are useful only in penetrating opaque substances, and experiments in Duluth would be confined exclusively to the Herald.”

It was within this context that two Bowdoin professors (and alumni) conducted their own x-ray experiments within weeks of the initial discovery. Chemistry Professor Franklin Clement Robinson [Class of 1873] and Physics Professor Charles C. Hutchins [Class of 1883] were approached by Gilbert Elliott, a local physician, who had a copy of Röentgen’s paper. Elliott could envision medical applications for the technique, but he couldn’t read German. Not only could Hutchins and Robinson read and understand the article, they came up with their own procedure for making a more effective and inexpensive tube. The Brunswick Telegraph of April 27 described a public demonstration at the College: “The tube was suspended over the table and Prof. Robinson laid his hand on the plate holder, Prof. Hutchins snapped the current on and in just sixty seconds it was turned off and in less than five minutes he had developed it and threw the picture up on the screen by means of the stereopticon.” The professors also displayed an x-ray of a bullet that was embedded in the ankle an African-American railroad porter; the bullet showed up as a bright spot a little forward of the shaft of the tibia. The original image, which required an exposure time of one hour, is preserved at the College, along with one of Hutchins’s tubes. The bullet was subsequently removed during Saturday surgical clinic hours at the Medical College of Maine in Adams Hall.

It became clear quite early on that there were lots of variables to consider and control, including the size and shape of the tube, gases and substances enclosed in the tube, the proper degree of vacuum for optimal results, the degree of exposure, the voltage of the current, and the treatment of fluorescing screens or photographic plates onto which images would be viewed or recorded. It also became apparent that there were great dangers involved. In 2010 Dutch researchers compared an 1896 x-ray apparatus to a modern machine and found that an 1896 patient would have been exposed to 1,500 times more radiation than a patient would receive today in making an x-ray of a hand.

At that time I suppose that I was one of the first persons in this country to be completely X-rayed. An almost cadaverous thinness made me an alluring subject for experimentation.

Clement Robinson of the Class of 1903 (the professor’s son) recalled being an experimental subject as a young boy: “At that time I suppose that I was one of the first persons in this country to be completely X-rayed. An almost cadaverous thinness made me an alluring subject for experimentation. Nobody knew in those days of the dangers inherent in the exposure of naked flesh to X-ray emanations. No harm came to me, but the Professor himself from constant exposure of his hand to the rays developed a burn on his flesh which alarmed him for several years, but which finally disappeared without any permanent ill effects.”

The late newspaper columnist John Gould ’31, Maine humorist and raconteur extraordinaire, recounted the tale of Perley Watson of Brunswick. Back in the late 1890s while working for the Maine Central Railway, Watson had wrenched his back. Perley wasn’t satisfied with Dr. Elliott’s diagnosis that his back wasn’t seriously out of alignment, so he offered to pay for an x-ray. The first two images were indistinct, perhaps because of Perley’s “more or less corpulent stomach.” A third attempt and a 30-minute x-ray session produced a clear image of a healthy spine, although within a few days radiation blisters appeared on Perley’s ample abdomen. After several months there was some improvement, and Perley lived another 30 years before taking up permanent residence in Pine Grove Cemetery next to Whittier Field. Gould concluded the story with typical understatement: “There may be a few omissions and errors in the foregoing account and it may be that time and silence had a part to play both in exaggeration and suppression.”

Professor Robinson died in 1910 of nephritis (an inflammation of the kidneys) at the age of 58, Professor Hutchins died in his 82nd year, and Clement Robinson at 82. There has been no suggestion that radiation exposure was implicated in any of the deaths. Robinson and Hutchins never profited from their more efficient and cost-effective design for a focusing x-ray tube; instead, they gave their permission for a Boston factory to make the tubes, asking only that “proper credit be given.”

There is an ongoing debate over where the first medical use of X-ray technology in America occurred. Dartmouth, Bowdoin, MIT, and Yale each have their champions. It may well be that the Dartmouth x-ray of Eddie McCarthy’s elbow pre-dates the image of a bullet in the ankle of an unnamed railroad porter. All that we know is that the Bowdoin x-ray was shown at a lecture in April – we don’t yet know when the x-ray was made. The challenges in reconstructing (and deconstructing) timelines for experimental results, newspaper accounts, and scientific reports lead me to concur with Professor of Physics Emeritus Roy LaCasce ’44, who wrote that it may not be possible (or especially meaningful) to identify a “first” here. However, we can state, without fear of contradiction, that science and medicine were transformed in the first few months of 1896, and that Bowdoin College made significant contributions to the “first wave” of x-ray research.

With best wishes,

John R. Cross ’76
Secretary of Development and College Relations

4 comments to Whispering Pines: Images of the Invisible

  • Barbara Kaster

    John Cross, as always, has written an informative and interesting article! Bowdoin’s history is so connected to the history of the USA. Thanks!

  • Dave Larsson

    Another radiant effort, John. I love the “permanent residence” line.

  • Al DeMoya, '72

    Wow! What an amazing essay about a surprising aspect of Bowdoin history. I continue to look forward to each issue of Whispering Pines.

  • Griffin Ouellette

    Can’t believe Franklin is my great-great-great grandfather.

Leave a Reply

  

  

  

You can use these HTML tags

<a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>

  Bowdoin delivered daily
sign up today—it's free!
Follow us »