The Universe of Discourse

Tue, 28 Aug 2018

How quickly did dentists start trying to use X-rays?

I had dental x-rays today and I wondered how much time elapsed between the discovery of x-rays and their use by dentists.

About two weeks, it turns out. Roentgen's original publication was in late 1895. Dr. Otto Walkhoff made the first x-ray picture of teeth 14 days later. The exposure took 25 minutes.

Despite the long exposure time, dentists had already begun using x-rays in their practices in the next two years. Dr. William J. Morton presented the new technology to the New York Odontological Society in April 1896, and his dental radiography, depicting a molar with an artificial crown clearly visible, was published in a dental journal later that year.

Morton's subject had been a dried skull. The first dental x-ray of a living human in the United States was made by Charles Edmund Kells in April or May of 1896. In July at the annual meeting of the Southern Dental Association he presented a dental clinic in which he demonstrated the use of his x-ray equipment on live patients. The practice seems to have rapidly become routine.

The following story about Morton is not dental-related but I didn't want to leave it out:

In March 1896, strongman Eugene Sandow, considered the father of modern bodybuilding, turned to Morton in an effort to locate the source of a frustrating pain he was experiencing in his foot. Apparently Sandow had stepped on some broken glass, but even his personal physician could not specify the location of the glass in his foot. The potential for the x-ray must have seemed obvious, and Sandow reached out specifically to Morton to see if he could be of help. Morton was eager to oblige. He turned the x-rays on Sandow’s foot and located the shard of glass disturbing Sandow’s equanimity. A surgeon subsequently operated and removed the glass, and the story made national news.

(Daniel S. Goldberg, “The Early Days of the X-Ray”)

The first dental x-ray machine was manufactured in 1923 by Victor X-ray Company, which later became part of General Electric.

In preparing this article I was fortunate to have access to B. Martinez, In a New Light: Early X-Ray Technology in Dentistry, 1890–1955, Arizona State University, 2013.

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