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"Looking Radiant": Science, Photography and the X-ray Craze of 1896 Sylvia Pamboukian Wilhelm Roentgen discovered X-rays in late 1895, and X-rays were immediately popularized in Britain as a new form of special effect photography. During the late nineteenth-century, special effect photographs using, for example, microscopes or different exposures were popular items, and visual gadgetry, including stereoscopes and kaleidoscopes , had been a mainstay in the Victorian parlour since the early part of the century, exploiting the popular fascination with novelty and technology. As engineer A.A.C. Swinton observed, "new discoveries and inventions multiply with increasing rapidity every year" ("Photographing" 290). TheQuarterly Review enthused that the "familiar surface-photography has . . . obtained as an ally a wonderful art of organic portraiture" and that the "'too too solid flesh' had virtually resolved itself into a dew at the magic touch of the Röntgen rays" ("Photography" 500). X-ray apparatus was relatively affordable to buy and fairly simple to construct. X-rays could be easily produced at home, at photography shops and at fairs and exhibitions, and volunteers lined up to have their purses or hands X-rayed by the "wonderful," "magic," and "organic" phenomenon. In addition to its imaging abilities, the X-ray was initially hailed for its germicidal potential and for its curative properties. It figured largely in many popular narratives about spectacular or miraculous cures of hitherto incurable conditions through modern medical technology (Knight 11). These accounts became so popular that one doctor wrote to the BritishMedicalJournalcomplaining about the X-ray's hold on the public imagination: 56volume 27 number 2 "Looking Radiant" A girl, aged 16, ran a long needle-like splinter of well-seasoned pine into the sole of her left foot. The case did not come under my care until a month after the accident. The parts at that time were extensively swollen and inflamed. I then had three skiagraphs [X-rays] of the foot taken. These photographs gave no indication of the site of the splinter, the rays passing through the wood as readily as through the soft tissues. By exploratory incision, I discovered and removed the splinter, which was about 2 Vi inches long, and although it had entered at the ball of the great toe, it was found imbedded in the middle third of the sole of the foot. The report of this case in the local paper described the splinter as having been exactly located by means of the rays, and as having saved an amputation. It is much to be regretted that more care is not exercised in reporting this class of news, more especially as such publications are likely to foster the false impressions about the possibilities of the new process, which are only too prevalent It was, of course, impossible to locate the splinter by means of the rays, wood being very transparent. (Deeping 1238) Sydney Rowland, the journal's chief correspondent on the X-ray, comments that the incident is an example of the "loose and irresponsible manner in which the lay press is in the habit of dealing with cases in which the ? rays have been applied to diagnosis" ("Report" 1238). This exchange illuminates several aspects of the X-ray's reception in the late Victorian period. Since the press reported on such a commonplace accident, the technology itself clearly commanded popular interest. In addition, the press's habitual exaggerations about "this class of news" indicate that popular interest in the X-ray arose as much from the X-ray's strange and wondrous qualities as from the technological achievement it represented. Finally, the doctor's anxiety to distance himself from the press account, because it is "likely to foster false impressions about the possibilities of the new process," hints at medicine's proprietary impulse toward the X-ray, although the doctor obviously shared in the popular optimism when he tried to X-ray a splinter of wood. Victorian Review57 S. Pamboukian Jonathan Crary notes that visual gadgets, including those originally intended for medical use, had been popular entertainment since the 1820's. Crary describes visual gadgetry as "points of intersection where philosophical, scientific, and aesthetic discourse overlap with mechanical techniques, institutional requirements, and...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1923-3280
Print ISSN
0848-1512
Pages
pp. 56-74
Launched on MUSE
2015-10-07
Open Access
No
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