Dartmouth Engineer - The Magazine of Thayer School of EngineeringDartmouth Engineer - The Magazine of Thayer School of Engineering

Inventions: Diagnostic X-Rays

By Lee Michaelides

Co-inventor: Professor Frank Austin

X-RAY VISION: Frank Austin, class of 1895, x-rayed his own hand.  Photograph courtesy of New Hampshire Profiles magazine.
X-RAY VISION: Frank Austin, class of 1895, x-rayed his own hand. Photograph courtesy of New Hampshire Profiles magazine.

The medical X-ray, like many inventions, is the result of different people working simultaneously on the same idea. Weeks after German scientist Wilhelm Roentgen announced in late 1895 the discovery of a “mysterious light” emitted from Crookes tubes, scientists and engineers from all over the world began experiments. One such person was Frank Austin, class of 1895, a physics assistant at Dartmouth and later a professor at Thayer. Using equipment he built, Austin made a number of X-ray photographs, including one of his own hand in late January of 1896. On February 3, 1896, at Austin’s suggestion, Hanover physician Dr. Gilman Frost and his brother, physics professor Edwin Frost, took a diagnostic X-ray of local schoolboy Eddie McCarthy’s broken wrist.

Until recently, Dartmouth had undisputed bragging rites for the first medical X-ray. Then Yale claimed that one of its physicists made an X-ray image on January 27, 1896.

“If Yale’s physicist, Arthur Wright, preempted the Dartmouth group,” writes Dr. Peter Spiegel ’58 DMS’59, a Dartmouth radiologist who has done extensive research on the history of the X-ray, “it remains unreported and unsubstantiated, at least in the scientific literature. The Dartmouth group went one step further. The taking of the first clinical X-ray in America was captured by photographer Henry H. Barrett and so remains the first scientific experiment recorded by photographic means.”

Editor’s Note: The photograph to which Dr. Spiegel refers actually was taken by H.H. Langill with the assistance of Henry H. Barrett.

Frank Austin urged Dr. Gilman Frost to take the first medical X-ray. Left to right: physicist Edwin Frost, patient Eddie McCarthy, Gilman Frost, and McCarthy’s mother, Margaret Mead Frost.  Photograph by Henry H. Barrett; from Dartmouth College Archives.
Frank Austin urged Dr. Gilman Frost to take the first medical X-ray. Left to right: physicist Edwin Frost, patient Eddie McCarthy, Gilman Frost, and Gilman’s wife, Margaret Mead Frost. Photograph by H.H. Langill and Henry H. Barrett; from Dartmouth College Archives.

—Lee Michaelides is a contributing editor at Dartmouth Engineer.

Categories: Inventions

Tags: design, engineering in medicine, entrepreneurship, faculty, history, innovation

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