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Military radiology and the Boer War

The centenary of the Great War has led to a renewed interest in military matters, and throughout history, war has often been the setting for medical innovation with major advances in the treatment of burns, trauma, and sepsis emanating from medical experience in the battlefield.

X-rays, discovered in 1895 by Roentgen, soon found a role in military conflict. The first use of X-rays in a military setting was during the Italo-Abyssinian war in 1896. The Italians lost the battle at Adoa and casualties were taken to the military hospital in Naples where X-rays were performed under the leadership of Colonel Alvaro.

In the United Kingdom, a Birmingham-based doctor was one of the earliest radiologists to gain experience in a military setting. John Hall-Edwards (1858-1926) started off as a general practitioner and following Roentgen’s discovery gave one of the earliest demonstrations of X-rays in the UK on 4 March 1896. He subsequently published an article in the Photographic Review journal of that year. Hall-Edwards, who was an accomplished photographer and an honorary fellow of the Royal Photographic Society, championed the new discovery of X-rays. In 1899 he became surgeon radiographer at the Birmingham General, Orthopedic, Children’s, and Eye hospitals, taking charge of the X-ray departments.

In 1900 Hall-Edwards went to South Africa to help during the Boer War and set about X-raying wounded soldiers. The field hospitals had no X-ray equipment; portable X-ray equipment was based in the general hospitals in Deelfontein. The portable equipment consisted of dynamos, coils, vacuum tubes, a bicycle frame, and a 12-month supply of developing chemicals and film. Over 200 patients underwent X-rays in a one year period to identify fractures, shrapnel, and bullet wounds from the Mauser bullets being used in the conflict. Today some of the early radiology equipment used in the Boer War is on display in the Museum of the History of Science in Oxford. (Oxford undergraduate E.G. Spencer Churchill bought the Wimshurst machine, X-ray tube, and fluorescent screen in 1898. He also went to South Africa to assist The Royal Army Medical Corps in the Boer War.) The experience of military radiology led him to produce his famous scientific paper ‘Bullets and their Billets’ published in the Archives of the Roentgen Ray, the leading British Radiology journal. He also wrote about the Boer War in the prestigious medical journal The Lancet.

Hall-Edwards returned to Birmingham where he had a distinguished career serving as editor of Archives of Roentgen Rays from 1904-1905, President of the Electrotherapeutic Society 1906 (forerunner of the Radiology section of the Royal Society of Medicine), and Vice-President of the Roentgen Society in 1915. He even became a City of Birmingham Councillor in 1920 and played an important role in civic affairs of the city serving on the Public Health, Library, Museum, and Art Gallery committees. Unfortunately he paid the ultimate price for being a pioneer. He succumbed to the harmful effects of X-rays, developing X-ray dermatitis. He was forced to have his hands amputated. He wrote a paper about this condition warning others about the harmful effects of X-rays. This, however, did not curtail his activities and he took up painting to an exhibition standard. He died in 1928, one of the British radiologists whose name is inscribed in the Martyrs Memorial in Hamburg.

Featured image: Gandhi with the stretcher-bearers of the Indian Ambulance Corps during the Boer War, South-Africa. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons

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