In this series of articles on iconic photographs, I have written several photographs from war zones. These photos show destruction of human life. But today, I am writing about a photograph that marks a discover which has saved countless lives so far and will continue to do so for time to come. Wilhelm Rontgen, a German physicist and the discoverer of X-rays, made one of the most significant discovery in science (probably on par with the discovery of the DNA structure). He gave man the ability to look through skin and muscles without making a cut. In present, X-ray is indispensable part of any hospital establishment and a number of medical conditions are cured with assistance of these rays.
Today’s photograph shows the first ever x-ray picture. X-rays are electromagnetic radiations of a particular wavelength range. On 8 November 1895 Roentgen discovered these previously unknown rays and a few weeks later, on 22 December 1895, he took the first x-ray photograph. The subject of the picture was hand of Roentgen’s wife Anna Bertha. He asked Anna to place her hand on a photographic plate and then showered x-rays on it. The x-rays penetrated through Anna’s skin, muscles and other tissues but could not go through bones and the wedding ring in her finger. As a result the photographic plate bore the image of bones of Anna’s hand. Seeing her skeleton, Anna commented, “I have seen my death!” (how ironical! given the fact that the x-rays actually pushed death away from countless people!)
Roentgen presented the print of this picture to Professor Ludwig Zehnder of the Physik Institut, University of Freiburg, on 1 January 1896. Roentgen was awarded the very first Nobel Prize in Physics in 1901. He donated all the prize money to his university. As per his will, the newly discovered rays were called just x-rays (x is usually used to denote the unknown entity). He refused to take out patent on this discovery because he wanted the entire mankind to receive the benefits of x-rays. He even forbade naming of these rays after him.
Roentgen died of carcinoma of intestine on 10 February 1923. His discovery of x-rays was great and had immeasurable benefits for mankind —but his donating prize money, not taking out patent and forbidding the use of term Roentgen Rays are even greater deeds. He was not only a scientist par excellence but also a sensitive human being. Salute to Wilhelm Röntgen!
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