north carolina highway historical marker program
North Carolina Highway Historical Marker Program
 

 
 
 

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      On January 6, 1896, the Associated Press announced that German physicist Wilhelm Roentgen had discovered a new form of radiation. While experimenting with cathode rays, Roentgen noticed a green glow on a screen covered with phosphorescent paint. He realized that invisible rays had escaped the vacuum tube and passed through the surrounding cardboard. He found that the mysterious “x”-rays passed through a variety of objects, but not very dense material. Finally he put his hand in front of the rays and saw the silhouette of his bones. At the time, many physics labs had equipment to duplicate the x-ray. Henry Louis Smith, physics professor and later president at Davidson College, was the first professional in North Carolina to work with x-rays.

      It was actually a group of Smith’s students who claim to be the first people in the state to perform x-ray experiments. Three juniors—Osmond Barringer, Eben Hardie, and Pender Porter—professed to having bribed a janitor to let them into the building housing the physics equipment on January 12, 1896, just six days after Roentgen’s announcement reached America. The students placed objects on photographic paper taking photographs, or what were called roentgenograms, of objects including an eggshell with a button in it, a rubber-covered magnifying glass, a cadaver’s finger, pins, cartridges, and paperclips. Years passed before the students made public their escapade. The original x-ray images are now housed in the Davidson College Archives.

      The actual building in which the physics lab was located is not known, but it would have been one of two since-demolished buildings that were next to each other. Smith proceeded to experiment with x-rays. He procured the arm of a cadaver from a colleague at neighboring North Carolina Medical College and shot a bullet into the hand. Smith later claimed that the date of his roentgenogram of the hand was January 13, 1896; however, contemporary evidence indicates it was more likely taken February 22.

      An article in the Charlotte Observer on February 27 claimed that Smith’s were the first x-ray experiments in the South. In 1897 Smith made the first medical use of x-rays in the state. A Cabarrus County family, having read about Smith’s roentgenograms in the Observer, contacted him to make an x-ray examination of their daughter who had swallowed a thimble. Smith loaded his equipment on a cart and located the thimble in the girl’s chest. There were sporadic attempts to utilize x-ray technology by other North Carolina physicians beginning in 1898, with the use becoming more conventional by 1902.


References:
William H. Sprunt III, “Radiology in North Carolina, 1896-1916,” North Carolina Medical Journal (July 1957): 269-276
William S. Powell, ed., Encyclopedia of North Carolina (2007)—essay by Clarence E. Horton Jr.
Ruth and Edward Brecher, The Rays: A History of Radiology in the United States and Canada (1969)
Mary Beaty, Davidson (1979)
Daily Charlotte Observer, February 27, 1896
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north carolina highway historical marker program


Henry Louis Smith, courtesy of the Davidson College Archives

© 2008 North Carolina Office of Archives & History — Department of Cultural Resources