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Why read radiology history?

By Arpan K Banerjee


Does history matter? Professional historians will not hesitate to answer in the affirmative for a multitude of reasons. I am sure many professionals in technical and scientific fields, however, may have asked themselves the first question in a reflective moment without necessarily the same positive responses attributed to professional historians.

But in an era where professional success in these scientific fields depends on obtaining research grants and publishing papers in high impact journals, there may be little time left to attribute to the study of the past. However, it is imperative that people are aware of their past, as without it, an understanding of the present is incomplete. Knowledge of the past will help to guide decisions about the future just as much in scientific endeavours as in human politics, administration, and other walks of life.

X -ray

Why read about radiology history specifically? Knowledge of medical history helps us to understand how we have arrived at the state of knowledge of current medical practice. Knowing what has not worked in the past enables us not to repeat mistakes. Knowledge of previous literature prevents society from repeating fruitless areas of scientific enquiry or enables those with vision to approach problems from a new angle.

This is only possible with hindsight gleaned from previous literature on the subject and a thorough knowledge of history is required for this. I am always reminded of the words of Michael Crichton, the author of Jurassic Park, who said “If you don’t know history, then you don’t know anything. You are a leaf that does not know it is part of a tree.”

Radiology is a relatively new branch of medicine with a history of a little more than a century. Roentgen’s discovery of x-rays in Wurzburg on November 8, 1895 revolutionised medicine in a way that could not have been foreseen. Today his discovery is celebrated during the annual international day of radiology, held on the 8th of November each year.

In the years since Roentgen’s seminal experiment, however, the science of imaging the human body has developed at an alarming pace due to advances in physics, chemistry, engineering, and more recently, computing, all of which was achieved by a cross fertilisation of ideas between people from many varied backgrounds. Today radiology plays a central role in modern medical practice. Knowledge of its history will hopefully make us more aware of how much we are all indebted to the pioneer doctors and scientists of yesteryear, the selfless radiation martyrs who paid the ultimate price so that today we have a panoply of equipment and skills in the diagnostic and therapeutic armamentarium against disease.

Arpan K Banerjee qualified in medicine from St Thomas’s Hospital Medical School in London, UK and trained in Radiology at Westminster Hospital and Guys and St Thomas’s Hospital. In 2012 he was appointed Chairman of the British Society for the History of Radiology of which he is a founder member and council member. In 2011 he was appointed to the scientific programme committee of the Royal College Of Radiologists, London. He is the author/co-author of 6 books including the recent The History of Radiology.

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Image credit: X-ray hand, via iStockphoto.

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