Medicine And The Media

Seeing it through

BMJ 1995; 311 doi: https://doi.org/10.1136/bmj.311.7006.695 (Published 09 September 1995) Cite this as: BMJ 1995;311:695
  1. Carl Elliott

    The strange, slightly loopy grip that x rays exert on the modern imagination goes beyond the medical realm. American shoe stores in the '50s used x ray machines to measure customers' feet. Beauty parlours used them to remove women's facial hair. They were a staple of comic books and bad science fiction films; Superman had x ray vision. Schizophrenics have delusions about x rays, often involving aliens or the CIA. The ability to see through surfaces with x rays is mysterious and eerily intriguing, yet radiography has now been around long enough to seem almost old fashioned.

    The McCord Museum of Canadian History in Montreal has put together an exhibition to mark the 100th anniversary of the discovery of x rays by the German physicist Wilhelm Konrad Rontgen. Aimed largely at nonmedical people, much of the exhibition is predictably and thoroughly educational, leading visitors through the development of radiography and explaining the increasingly complicated physics. It displays early x ray machines and radiographs as well as more recent developments, such as ultrasonography, positron emission tomography, and nuclear magnetic resonance imaging.

    Occasionally, though, the exhibition diverges from the conventional path, and here is where it becomes more interesting. We sometimes overlook the strange beauty of radiographs, their cool, ghostly fluorescence, and the McCord curators have closed the exhibition with some artworks that incorporate radiography in innovative ways, most notably a striking series by Verle Harrop. We also learn that critical developments in tomography were made by an engineer with the Beatles's recording company, EMI: Godfrey Haunsfield made improvements on the tomograph that his friend Jonas Ambrose had created; EMI financed its development, and Haunsfield won the Nobel prize for physics in 1976.

    Doctors tend to forget how widely x rays are used outside the medical sphere—for examining luggage, to take a common example—an idea introduced in 1897 by the French, who used x rays to check the trunks (as well as the hair, we are told) of travellers. Art historians can use x rays to detect changes that an artist (or an interloper) has made to an oil painting. Archaeologists use them to study the structure of fragile relics, and the exhibition includes a mummy brought to Montreal from Thebes in 1859. It is displayed alongside x rays and computed tomography scans that reveal the anatomy beneath the wrappings.

    The Inside Story is an inventive, professional exhibition; yet for all its merits I wish the curators had indulged their whimsical side just a bit more. x Rays have had a disproportionate influence on popular culture, yet this influence goes largely unexplored. In fact, some of the most fascinating parts of the exhibition were those showing how x rays have been used in bizarre or dangerous ways. I came away interested less in how x rays are used in medical science than in how they might have been used in medical quackery.—CARL ELLIOTT, Montreal Children's Hospital and McGill University, Montreal, Canada

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