Thursday, January 11, 2024

On This Day in the Old West: January 12

 Today we’ll take a look at medical technology. Specifically, the X-ray, now a ubiquitous aid to medical science. In the Old West, however, it was simply a parlor trick to most people—and nobody realized the dangers of radiation yet.


On January 12, 1896, three junior students at Davidson College in North Carolina bribed a janitor to let them into the physics lab after hours so they could play around with X-rays. Their professor, Dr. Henry Louis Smith, future president of the college, was the first in North Carolina to work with X-Rays, but the first Americans to actually take an X-ray were his mischievous students.


Six days before the students’ escapades, the Associated Press had announced that German physicist Wilhelm Roentgen discovered a new form of radiation. He had been experimenting with cathode rays and found a mysterious “X” ray that passed through various substances. He put his hand in front of the rays and saw the silhouette of his own bones. Juniors Oben Hardin, Pender Porter, and Osmond L. Barringer decided they needed to see this with their own eyes.

Many physics labs around the world had the equipment on hand with which to duplicate Roentgen’s experiments. Dr. Smith’s three students placed various objects on photographic paper, taking a series of what were then called Roentgenograms of an eggshell with a button inside it, a rubber-covered magnifying glass, a cadaver’s finger with a ring on it, a pin, two cartridges, and two more rings. It was years before their little experiments were made public, but now the original X-rays are on file at the college’s archives.


Dr. Smith took up his own X-ray work and the following month published an X-ray photograph of a cadaver’s hand with a bullet inside it in the local newspaper. Later in the year, he used his X-ray machine to locate a needle inside a man’s knee, allowing doctors to accurately remove it surgically. This was the first use of X-ray technology in a medical procedure in the United States. Smith also saved a child’s life by showing that, despite her doctor’s belief that the girl was suffering from tonsillitis, a thimble she swallowed had lodged inside her throat, blocking access to her stomach, and causing her to slowly starve. Smith’s X-rays allowed for another successful surgery.


Dr. Gilman D. Frost, Professor of Medicine at Dartmouth Medical School, also had the chance to utilize the X-ray in a medical procedure. On January 19 of the same year, young Eddie McCarthy fell while skating on the Connecticut River and fractured his left wrist. A week later, a New York newspaper, The Sun, carried a more detailed article about Roentgen and his X-rays. Dr. Frost and his brother Edwin, a professor of Physics and Astronomy at Dartmouth, immediately began testing the numerous vacuum tubes in the laboratory to see which, if any, could produce the mysterious rays.


After obtaining the proper tube and figuring out how to energize it, Dr. Frost arranged to take an X-ray of young Eddie’s wrist to see where the break was. This endeavor was photographed for posterity by Henry H. Barrett on February 3, 1896, making this the first pathological use of an X-ray in America (Dr. Smith’s needle search was later in the same year).


Your characters may not have experienced an X-ray for themselves, but if they lived anywhere near a college or hospital, they may have been to a demonstration. Remember that no one realized how dangerous exposure to X-rays was, so they were treated as party entertainment. For a time, you could even get an X-ray of your foot inside your new shoe to show if it fit properly or not.

J.E.S. Hays


  1. JES...Thanks. Fascinating material. I do remember the X-Ray machines in some shoe stores. --Jim...

  2. Cool!! Here I thought it was much later in timeline. Thanks for this info. …. Meg

  3. Medical History is so fascinating. Thank you for finding and sharing this. Absolutely loved it. Doris