Roentgen’s Six Weeks with the Unknown

Photography by the authors
A 10-minute walk northwest along the cobbles in Würzburg in Franconia, Germany brings a visitor from the Residenz Palace (and that era of over-the-top Baroque Splendor when each prince bishop in Germany wanted his own Versailles) to a more humble, more mundane building. However, this is perhaps more hallowed ground to physicians — the former department of physics in the University of Würzburg.
Here, in this place on Nov. 8, 1895, Wilhelm Conrad Roentgen existed for six weeks, eating and sleeping in his laboratory despite the more convenient proximity of his apartment just one flight above. He didn’t move from his lab because he had found something he didn’t understand. He had discovered a mystery. Some rays of light that really didn’t make sense.
He was asked later by an American reporter what he was thinking those six weeks he lay in the dark on the floor of his lab surrounded by the unknown.
“I don’t think. I investigate,” he replied.
Roentgen was born in Germany in 1845 of a German father and Dutch mother. His family moved to the Netherlands when he was three. He had significant mechanical skills and was accepted by a technical school in Utrecht in 1862, where he was expelled when he was found standing beside a caricature a friend had drawn of one of the teachers; Roentgen wouldn’t say who drew it.
His possible education lay in ruins but, says Roland Weigand of the Roentgen Memorial, his father, a wealthy cloth merchant, encouraged him to go to Switzerland where the Polytechnic in Zurich would admit him if he passed its entrance examination. When he graduated with his PhD in 1869 he had the most important document in his life, says Weigand.
Weigand has been kind enough to see us by appointment. Prior to our time with him we have wandered among the showcases looking at the death cast of Roentgen’s hands, some of his equipment, and his telescope and outdoor gear (he was a keen huntsman).
We have peered through a locked glass door into Roentgen’s very laboratory but, now, Weigand pulls out a key! We step into history.
We stand at Roentgen’s desk beside the clutter of his laboratory equipment. His book lies open before us and his pipe beside it. It almost looks as if he has stepped out on an errand.
Roentgen was alone in his lab, as he often was, that night when he was experimenting with an almost empty tube to study the conduction of electricity through gases. To his astonishment, he found “brightly illuminated, a nearby paper screen [that had been] covered with fluorescent crystals.”
He realized the rays had passed through dense materials in their path and when he put his hand in the path of the rays, “he saw the bones of his hand projected in shadow on the screen.”
Weigand demonstrates with modern black light how the fluorescent crystals glow, then helps us adjust Roentgen’s bust for a classic shot of his famous laboratory as it was that night of Nov. 8, 1895.
Roentgen’s wife had wondered why he hadn’t come upstairs to his apartment all this time as he wrestled with his need to understand his discovery. He then demonstrated the bones of her hand to her in the first ever recorded X-ray image.
Subsequently, he took an image of the hand of his colleague, the anatomy professor Albert von Kolliker. In 1896 Roentgen delivered an address to the Physical Medical Society of Wurzburg at which von Kolliker gave his surely understated opinion that “this discovery is very important for science and maybe for medicine.” Asked how he had found X-rays, Roentgen, a reticent and modest man, answered, “By chance!”
In Europe, against this unassuming man’s wishes, the rays were called Röntgen rays or Roentgen rays for those whose printer did not have an umlaut.
We think our interview is over with Weigand, the personal assistant to the president of the university, but he has a surprise for us, a treat. He ushers us into the new science building and into the front row of a new lecture hall.
“We have carried over some of the history from the lecture room in the old physics building,” he says. “In particular, we have saved the wooden front row of seats and brought it here, so you are sitting exactly where von Kolliker sat that historic day on January 23, 1896 when Roentgen gave his public lesson on X-rays.”
Weigand projects his images of that occasion, points out the famous bald head in front of Roentgen and demonstrates (on the left) the image of von Kolliker’s hand and (on the right) the more exciting, to us, and sentimental picture of his wife’s hand. Roentgen had married his wife, Anna, in 1872. She died four years before him.
The first Nobel Prize in Physics was given to Roentgen in 1901. He gave lectures till he was 75. He died of bowel cancer in 1923 in Munich, Germany at the age of 77.
What had he left us? One might argue he made a discovery equal in significance to or even transcending James Simpson’s search for the medical uses of chloroform in Edinburgh; William Morton’s and Crawford Long’s discoveries of ether in America; Frederick Banting and Charles Best’s breakthrough to unearth insulin in Canada; and Alexander Fleming’s serendipitous stumbling onto penicillin in London.
The Andersons, who live in San Diego, are the resident travel & cruise columnists for Physician's Money Digest. Nancy is a former nursing educator, Eric a retired MD. The one-time president of the NH Academy of Family Practice, Eric is the only physician in the Society of American Travel Writers. He has also written five books, the last called The Man Who Cried Orange: Stories from a Doctor's Life.

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