This blog series has explored many of the medical advancements the First World War enabled; warfare madeÂ medical advances a priority.
However many aspects of medical technology were already in development before the war. This post will explore x-ray apparatus that had previously existed, but where the conflict hastened significant developments that meant technology could be adapted to the often harsh and varied terrain of the battlefield.
Radiation was originally discovered by German physicist Wilhelm RĂśntgen in the late 19th century. One of the early ways x-rays were used is through an x-ray tube. The image opposite shows an early photograph from 1905 of a Crookes x-ray tube showing Rontgen rays (so named after their inventor, and now commonly known as x-rays).
X-rays and their uses
X-rays in the context of the First World War were principally used to identify foreign metal lodged in the body. Reading the samples of medical registers it is not surprising this apparatus was highly used, with gun shot wounds often mentioned as a cause of injury. Browsing through pension records it also possible to note the wide variety of other conditions x-rays were used for, from neuralgia to deafness. Records in our collections of the Munitions Invention Department document two principle reasons these advances in technology were so important; first, to save lives directly as a result of injuries and second, to prevent illness from the spread of infection from foreign objects. Infection continued to be one of the biggest killers through out the war.
Despite this urgent need for x-ray equipment towards the beginning of the conflict the skills and research in this area were in short supply, specifically the glass apparatus. With the Department of Scientific and Industrial Research commenting that ‘The x-ray tube industry in this country is in the hands of only a few small firms, with limited funds and working largely without proper scientific assistance.’ (DSIR 36/3367).