Radiology as a medical specialty is a relatively young field. It’s beginnings can be traced to 1895 after the first x-ray machine was invented. Radiology can simply be defined as the science of radiation and radiation imaging. According to Dr. Catherine Phillips MD, “most people believe a radiologist only does x-rays, but, actually, they are responsible for imaging in all modalities. That includes x-rays, CT scans, MRI’s, PET scans, and much more.”
These diagnostic imaging tests are invaluable to the treatment of countless diseases and conditions. Physicians can use these highly detailed images of the body to pinpoint exactly what is wrong with a patient, or how a specific disease is affecting a patient's soft tissues. As a science, radiology is largely dependent on technological advancement. For that reason, there are a quite a few famous radiologists throughout history who have made important contributions to the field.
Let’s look at a few of these “founding fathers” and the history of radiology timeline:
1. Wilhelm Rontgen (1895):
Wilhelm Rontgen, a Dutch/German physicist, and mechanical engineer are responsible for the founding invention of radiology. In 1895 Rontgen discovered x-ray radiation and its ability to produce images of bones. He was intrigued by this new type of ray and found that it’s properties allowed him to see through non-transparent objects. He performed the first x-ray test on his wife, Anna Bertha Ludwig. From these x-ray experiments in Rontgen’s modest laboratory, the entire field of radiology was born. Rontgen was awarded the Nobel Prize in Physics in 1901.
2. Ian Donald (1956):
Ian Donald was a Scottish obstetrician and physician who was the first person to use ultrasound imaging in medicine. Donald served in the Royal Air Force during World War II where he developed a keen interest in radar and sonar. This interest would push him to use these sciences for medical ultrasound purposes. The ultrasound uses sound waves to create real-time images of internal body structures. While most notably it is used to view fetal development in pregnant women, it can also be used to view tendons, muscles, joints, and internal organs.
3. Godfrey Hounsfield & Allan Cormack (1971):
Hounsfield and Cormack were the two electrical engineers who invented the x-ray computed tomography (CT) scan in 1971. They were awarded the Nobel Prize in Medicine in 1979 for this important contribution to the field. The CT scan uses a combination of x-rays and computer software to create cross-sectional images of specific portions of the body. This invention further established radiology as a cutting edge, hi-tech field of science. The CT scan can produce highly detailed images of the brain, lungs, heart, and other internal organs. Ct scans help diagnose and treat a wide array of diseases from cancer to brain injury.
4. Raymond Vahan Damadian (1979):
Damadian invented the first commercial magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) machine in 1979. The MRI scan is different from the CT scan and other radiological procedures in that it does not use x-rays at all. The MRI uses magnetic fields, radio waves, and field gradients to generate images of internal organs. MRIs are becoming more and more popular in medicine today. They are one of the most prescribed imaging tests and are used to diagnose tumors, brain injury, aneurysms, blocked blood vessels, spinal injuries, tendon and muscle problems, and much, much more.
5. Ronald Nutt and David Townsend (1998):
Townsend and Nutt are considered the inventors of the PET-CT scanner. This scan uses Positron Emission Tomography (PET) and Computerized Tomography (CT) simultaneously to add a precise anatomic localization to functional imaging. PET scans use radioactive pharmaceutical injections. As the injected substance interacts with the electrons of the body, both positron and electron are annihilated and two gamma photons are produced. These photons move in opposite directions of one another, and the PET scan detects them and uses these photons to create the three-dimensional diagnostic image. The PET-CT scanner uses CT technology to then combine with PET scan and locates tumors, etc. precisely.
Radiology has come a long way from Dr. Rontgen’s laboratory. The simple x-ray image of his wife’s hand provided the groundwork for the high-tech nuclear medicine techniques and 3D images of today’s radiologists. Radiology history shows us that over the course of one hundred years the field has not only changed and improved drastically, but it has also revolutionized diagnostic medicine. Who knows where radiology technology will be in another hundred years.