Wilhelm Röntgen (1845-1923): Biography, Accomplishments & Contribution to Medicine

The German physicist and mechanical engineer Wilhelm Conrad Röntgen is hailed as the first to identify electromagnetic radiation in wavelength ranges, which are now known as X-rays. Even though other scientists had explored the concept of X-ray beams before Röntgen, he was the first to thoroughly investigate them. Initially, he named them Roentgen rays, but he later gave them the name X-rays to emphasize the mystery surrounding his discovery. In 1901, he was awarded the inaugural Nobel Prize in Physics for his ground-breaking work.

Wilhelm Röntgen

Formative Years of the Physicist

Wilhelm Conrad Röntgen was born in the German town of Lennep, in the province of Lower Rhine on March 27, 1845. He was the only child of Friedrich Conrad Röntgen, a trader, and Charlotte Constanze Frowein, a fabric manufacturer.

When he was around the age of three, he and his family relocated to Apeldoorn, a municipality in the province of Gelderland in the Netherlands.

The German physicist began his formal education at the boarding school called the Institute of Martinus Herman van Doorn in 1850. The following year, he enrolled in Utrecht Technical School in Utrecht, Netherlands. He could not graduate high school as he was expelled school.

The unfortunate event that led to him being expelled from school in 1863 was a prank perpetrated by another pupil. Röntgen chose not to clear his name. Without any high school diploma, Rontgen could not enroll in any university. Rather than allow that curtail his quest for scientific knowledge, he chose to attend college courses as a visitor.

In 1865, he successfully passed the entrance examination to the Federal Polytechnic Institute in Zurich. Four years later, he earned a doctorate in mechanical engineering. During his studies in Zurich, he was able to learn from renowned scientist Rudolf Julius Emmanuel Clausius. He also gained laboratory experience under the tutelage of renowned German physicist August Kundt.

After finishing college, he joined Kundt’s staff as an assistant and followed him to Würzburg and then Strasbourg three years later.

Although Röntgen did not seem to have a natural aptitude for academics, he did have a knack for constructing mechanical devices. This talent of his allowed him to create many of the experimental instruments he used throughout his career.

Wilhelm Conrad Röntgen’s Academic Achievements

He began teaching at the University of Strasbourg in 1874. A year later, he accepted a position at the Academy of Agriculture in Hohenheim, Württemberg. In 1876, he went back to Strasbourg to take a position there as professor of physics.

In 1879, he was made the physics chair at the University of Giessen in Hesse, Germany. About a decade later, he was appointed the head of the physics department at the University of Würzburg. Rontgen also held similar position at the University of Munich in 1900.

World War I prevented Röntgen from taking a position at Columbia University in New York City, therefore he ended up spending his entire career in Munich instead.

Wilhelm Rontgen’s Discovery of X-Rays

Right from his early career, Rontgen had begun investigating the way that voltage altered the behaviors and look of vacuum tubes. Flowing from that research, he was able to delve into the study of electricity since it was an important part of his research on vacuums.

In a series of tests performed in 1895, he connected a Hittorf-Crookes tube (which is equivalent to a very powerful light source) to a Ruhmkorff coil. The coil was an early and very powerful electrical charge generator similar to what starts a vehicle engine. This was all to duplicate a luminous effect seen in a Lenard tube, which was a different kind of vacuum tube. This, to his astonishment, caused a type of fluorescence which spanned several feet from where he stood. This led him to speculate that the phenomenon that he just witnessed was a novel discovery.

The name cathode rays came about after the discovery because they were generated by a well-known filament inside the device.

Another thing he learned was that he could see his skeleton by running his palm over an electrically charged vacuum tube and a screen coated with barium platinocyanide. He then went on to conduct his first human trial by producing an x-ray of his wife’s hand.

German physicist Rontgen was the first to win the Nobel Prize in Physics. Image: First medical X-ray by German scientist Wilhelm Röntgen of his wife Anna Bertha Ludwig’s hand

The Aftermath of His Discovery

In 1896, he released a paper titled “On A New Kind of Rays” (Über eine neue Art von Strahlen) after discreetly validating his findings. His insight was immediately useful in many areas of medical imaging. For his contribution, he was awarded a doctorate of medicine from the University of Würzburg. That same year, Rontgen was presented with the Royal Society of London’s Rumford Medal.

Perhaps his most notable honor came in 1901, when he received the Nobel Prize in Physics. Thus, he is the inaugural holder of the prize. The honor was for his groundbreaking work on X-rays.

With this finding, he paved the way for diagnostic radiology and shook the foundations of the medical world. He laid the groundwork for the use of imaging in medicine. As a result, he came to be widely regarded as the “Father of X-rays” or the “Father of Diagnostic Radiology”.

Understanding the dangers of X-rays has allowed scientists to create measures that drastically reduce exposure. While X-rays will always have an important place in medicine, new imaging methods have since emerged, some of which eliminate the need for radiation altogether. These methods include magnetic resonance imaging (MRI), computed tomography (CT), ultrasound (US), and echocardiogram (ECHO). This isn’t so bad for something that was discovered by chance.

Other Interesting Facts about the German Physicist

  • The radioactive element roentgenium (atomic number 111) with several unstable isotopes was named after him in 2004 by the International Union of Pure and Applied Chemistry in recognition of his many contributions.
  • To ensure that everyone may benefit from the use of X-rays, Rontgen, like Pierre Curie, declined to file patents on his findings.
  • It was decided to name a measurement system after Wilhelm to show respect for his contributions to the scientific community. The Röntgen is a historical unit of measurement for X-ray and gamma-ray doses. The year 1928 marked its official introduction as the international standard for measuring ionizing radiation.
  • After completing his X-ray research and writing his thesis in 1888, he was offered a position as physics chair at the University of Würzburg, which he accepted.
  • In 1896, Wilhelm shared the Rumford Medal with Philipp Lenard for their work demonstrating that a percentage of cathode rays could pass through a thin film of a metal like aluminum.
  • In 1895, he began studying what happens to vacuum tubes outside of the laboratory when an electrical current is run through them.
  • He met his wife, Anna Bertha Ludwig, in Zurich, and they tied the knot in 1872. No children came from their union. The couple however adopted Anna’s niece Josephine Bertha Ludwig, then six years old, in 1887. He remained married to his wife, who was 6 years older than him, until her death in 1919.
  • Röntgen passed away on February 10th, 1923. The cause of his death was Carcinoma, often known as colorectal cancer.

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