Reflections on the International Day of Radiology

Reflections on the International Day of Radiology

By Dr Arpan K Banerjee

Today (November 8th) The International Day of Radiology celebrates the discovery of X-rays by Wilhelm Rontgen, a Professor of Physics in Wurzburg, Germany, whose discovery revolutionised medical practice and won him the first Nobel Prize in Physics in 1901. Today his remarkable legacy lives on in the radiology departments worldwide where X-rays are used to help diagnose diseases in patients. In the early days of the 20th century X-rays were predominantly used to diagnose fractures and localise foreign bodies which helped surgeons do minimal harm to patients when they operated to remove these. Radiology in those days was a broad church discipline and was not confined to medical practitioners only. Often people with electrical or photographic backgrounds found themselves taking up posts in this new field. The harmful effects of radiation which were not initially appreciated and long exposure times in acquiring radiographic studies resulted in many early casualties and radiation martyrs who are remembered in The Monument to the X-ray and Radium Martyrs of All Nations memorial in Hamburg. Read more about early radiology with this free chapter from The History of Radiology

Today things have moved on immeasurably with newer, better, lower radiation imaging, as well as ultrasound and Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI) techniques which do not use radiation at all. Ultrasound was introduced by the pioneer Ian Donald (1910-1987) a Scottish obstetrician and gynaecologist who built the first scanner in the Glasgow Royal Infirmary with John MacVicar and Tom Brown the engineer from Kelvin Hughes. In 1958 he published the classic paper on ultrasound in the Lancet ‘Investigation of abdominal masses by pulsed ultrasound.’

MRI is now a routine investigative tool thanks to the pioneering work of Paul Lauterbur, Raymond Damadian, Peter Mansfield, and others. Lauterbur, an American chemist was to share the 2003 Nobel Prize in Medicine with Mansfield, a Nottingham Physics Professor.

This year saw the centenary of the birth of another great scientist who made perhaps the greatest radiological imaging advance of the late twentieth century, Godfrey Hounsfield (1919-2004). We should perhaps take this opportunity to reflect on the legacy of this remarkable man. Born in Sutton-on-Trent and the youngest of five siblings, he came from relatively humble beginnings with few school qualifications and started work with the Royal Air Force in 1939. His interest in computers led him to join EMI Group Limited and in 1958 he designed the first all transistor computer the EMIDEC 1100. He got his idea for the CT scanner on one of his walks and in October 1971 he presented the first CT image of a brain, performed on the scanner at Atkinson Morley Hospital. Again, this event led to radiology undergoing a revolution possibly greater than that caused by Rontgen. In 1979 Hounsfield shared the Nobel Prize in Medicine with the physicist Allan McLeod Cormack who had done some of the pioneering physics behind this technique.

Radiology would never be the same again. All hospitals had to have this new equipment and today it is the major diagnostic investigative tool in hospitals throughout the world and has helped revolutionise trauma and cancer care. Both Rontgen and Hounsfield would be amazed by how important their discoveries have been in shaping modern health care. 

Arpan K. Banerjee qualified in medicine at St Thomas’s Hospital Medical School in London, UK and trained in Radiology at Westminster Hospital and Guys and St Thomas’s Hospital. From 2012-2017 he was Chairman of the British Society for the History of Radiology of which he is a founder member and current council member and trustee. From 2012-2016 he was on the scientific programme committee of the Royal College Of Radiologists, London. He is Treasurer of the International Society of the History of Radiology (ISHRAD). He is the author/co-author of seven books including the recent The History of Radiology, (OUP 2013).