Wilhelm Conrad Roentgen

Wilhelm Conrad Roentgen was a German physicist born on 27th March 1845 in Lennep, Germany. On the 8th of November 1895, he was the first to detect X-rays/Roentgen rays.

Wilhelm attended the primary and secondary school run by Martinus Herman van Doorn in the town of Apeldoorn, The Netherlands 1

At the age of 17 he moved to Utrecht, also in the Netherlands, and enrolled in the Utrecht Technical School. A few years later he was expelled on the grounds of a caricature of one of their teachers on the blackboard; he was innocent of this, but refused to say who had been responsible 1

In 1865, aged 20, Wilhelm enrolled at the Mechanical Technical Division of the Zurich Polytechnicab School in Switzerland. Three years later he received the degree of mechanical engineer 1

In 1869 he received his PhD in "Studies on Gasses", also from Zurich Polytechnicab School, where he remained until 1870. 

In 1870 he followed his mentor, Professor Kundt, to the Julius Maximilians University of Würzburg in Germany. This proved to be short lived, with the appointment proving a disappointment to both Roentgen and Kundt 1.

Two years later, in 1872, both moved to Kaiser Wilhelms University of Strasbourg 1

At the age of 30, in 1875 he became professor of physics at the Academy of Stuttgart-Hohenheim in Württemberg, which granted him German citizenship  1.  This appointment was also short lived, and Wilhelm moved back to Strasbourg in 1876 as professor of theoretical physics, back at Kaiser Wilhelms University. 

Following significant publications, he once more moved in 1879 to the Justus von Liebig University of Giessen, where he was given the opportunity to design a new department. 

In 1888 he moved one more time to the Physical Institute at the University of Würzburg, where he was to make the discovery he is most famous for. 

Towards the end of 1895 Wilhelm became interested in the physical properties of cathode ray tubes, and began amassing relevant experimental equipment. 

On Friday, November 8th 1895 Wilhelm was reproducing earlier work using low output Lenard tubes, whereby fluorescence was visible on a screen coated with barium platinocyanide. He moved on to a higher output Hittorf-Crookes tube, and reproduced the same phenomenon on a screen located near the tube. What he noticed, while in the darkened room, was similar fluorescence arising from another barium platinocyanide-coated screen over a meter away, far further than cathode ray tubes were known to work. Despite moving the screen even further, fluorescence was still visible 1

Enraptured in the thrill of discovery he worked through the night, and soon noticed that these new rays seemed to effortlessly pass through many objects opaque to visible light (e.g. books), but were blocked by metal objects, their outline visible on the screen. While holding such an object he noted the outline of the bones of his hand 1

Arguably the most famous X-ray ever taken, that of the hand of his wife Bertha, was dated December 27th 1895. The next day, he delivered a paper titled “On a New Kind of Rays,” to the Würzburg Physical Medical Society 1.

Wilhelm Conrad Roentgen developed colon cancer and he eventually died on February 10th 1923, at the age of 78 1

  • Rumford Medal (1896)
  • Matteucci Medal (1896)
  • Elliott Cresson Medal (1897)
  • Nobel Prize for Physics (1901)
  • Element number 111 named roentgenium (Rg) in his honour (IUPAC 2004; IUPAP 2011)

International Day of Radiology is celebrated on the date of the discovery of x-rays on 8th November every year starting in 2012 as a joint initiative by the European Society of Radiology (ESR), the Radiological Society of North America (RSNA) and the American College of Radiology (ACR).

History of Radiology
Share article

Article information

rID: 25344
Tag: history
Synonyms or Alternate Spellings:

Support Radiopaedia and see fewer ads

Updating… Please wait.
Loadinganimation

Alert accept

Error Unable to process the form. Check for errors and try again.

Alert accept Thank you for updating your details.