Wilhelm Conrad Röntgen (a.k.a., Roentgen) (1845-1923), the first Nobel winner in Physics, was the first to produce X-rays, known originally as Röntgen rays. The facts of his early biography offer hope for those who fail in their initial educational efforts. A childhood act of solidarity excluded him from many subsequent schools. However, he went on not only to complete his education but to achieve a full professorship. His discovery of the effect of the invisible but powerful rays that revealed the bones inside bodies has made possible many elements of modern medicine.
Wilhelm Conrad Röntgen was the child of a Dutch mother and a German father. Although born in Germany, his family, which was Catholic moved to Holland, which is largely Protestant. As a teenager, he made the judgment error of refusing to squeal on a schoolmate who had drawn a rude picture of an instructor. This act of defiance caused his expulsion and his exclusion from other gymnasia, not only in the Netherlands but in his father’s nation of Germany as well.
Somehow in spite of apparently universal blacklisting, he managed to gain admission to the Federal Polytechnic Institute in Zurich, Switzerland, by entry exam. He studied mechanical engineering, and went on to the University of Zurich for his PhD. He went on to teach physics at a number of universities. He even considered an offer from Columbia University, an institution with a history of offering lecterns to brilliant émigrés. However, World War I broke out and he ended up remaining in Munich for the remainder of his professional career.
For decades, he had been studying the effects of electrical charge on the response and appearance of vacuum tubes. The science of electricity was still relatively new, and there remained much to understand. His set-ups used relatively simple components by today’s standards.
He conducted a series of experiments in 1895 in which he connected a type of vacuum tube (visualize a light bulb on steroids) called a Hittorf-Crookes tube to an early and very powerful electrostatic charge generator known as a Ruhmkorff coil, similar to what sparks a car motor to start. He was trying to reproduce a fluorescent effect observed with another type of vacuum tube called a Lenard tube. The filament inside produced a stream of electrons which was well-known, called a cathode ray. To his surprise, this produced fluorescence on a screen coated with a compound called barium platinocyanide, several feet away. This suggested to him that a hitherto unknown, and entirely invisible, effect was being produced. We know now that the cathode ray had excited the atoms of the aluminum to produce X-rays, which in turn excited the atoms of the barium (an element which fluoresces readily)
He also discovered that when his hand passed between the electrically charged vacuum tube and the barium platinocyanide coated screen, he saw his bones. He reproduced this phenomenon with his wife, causing horror.
After secretly confirming his findings, he published an article titled, “On A New Kind Of Rays” (Über eine neue Art von Strahlen). This revelation and its nearly immediate application to all sorts of medical imaging earned him an honorary medical degree. His Nobel Prize was awarded in 1901.
Unlike the bios of some other radiation pioneers, his does not end with him giving his life for his seminal work, since he used lead shielding. He did, however, die of intestinal carcinoma.