X-ray Vision

UB’s radiology museum lets us peer deeper into our history—and ourselves

By Rebecca Rudell

While this issue of At Buffalo is dedicated to food, we can’t ignore the significant number of people— around the world and in our own backyards—who go without. This X-ray, taken in 1982 at Erie County Medical Center (ECMC) and now part of UB’s Museum of Radiology and Medical Physics, shows the stomach of an indigent male patient who had ingested three metal spoons in order to get a stay in the county hospital, complete with three square meals a day. He apparently made a habit of swallowing utensils whenever the hunger became too much to bear.

In addition to this radiograph, the collection of well over 500 items—curated by Professor Dan Bednarek and Clinical Instructor Emeritus Ben Kutas, both in the Department of Radiology—includes X-ray tubes and fluoroscopes from 1896 (just one year after Wilhelm Röntgen discovered X-rays); World War II-era portable X-ray machines; and dozens of X-ray films, which are Kutas’ favorite items in the collection. “The films bring back fond memories of my days as a radiologic technologist at ECMC, and they demonstrate some very unique human maladies.”

Wave to the camera

All forms of light—including visible light, ultraviolet, infrared and X-ray—are considered radiation and travel in waves. X-rays have very short wavelengths, allowing them to pass through things visible light cannot, like the human body. Since bones are denser, they absorb (and, therefore, block) most of the rays, showing up as white areas. Soft tissues are penetrated more easily and show up as various shades of gray.

“I have seen my death.”

First medical X-ray by Wilhelm Röntgen of his wife Anna Bertha Ludwig's hand

Or so said German physicist Wilhelm Röntgen’s wife, Anna, upon seeing the bones of her hand. The year was 1895 and Röntgen had become fascinated when the light from a cathode ray tube shielded with heavy, black cardboard caused a nearby screen coated with fluorescent material to glow. The story goes that he asked his beloved to place her hand between the ray tube and a photographic plate, and what resulted was the first known X-ray photograph in history.

Glow feet

The shoe industry took full advantage of the X-ray phenomenon. During the 1940s and ’50s, more than 10,000 shoe-fitting fluoroscopes were placed in shoe stores across the United States—and kids loved them! They would stop by after school, stick their feet into the machine and marvel at their glowing, green appendages. By the 1970s, the dangers of radiation were well known and these devices were banned in most states, with the last machine taken off the floor of a West Virginia store in 1981.