In January 1896, Dr. Henry Louis Smith, a physics professor at Davidson Colllege, read about Wilhelm Conrad Roentgen’s discovery of x-rays in an associated press bulletin. He realized that Davidson College possessed the right equipment to repeat Roentgen’s experiments. Dr. Smith told his physics class about Roentgen’s discovery of x-rays, and Smith’s planned experiments with them.
Shortly afterwards, three Davidson juniors, eager to test Smith’s theories, snuck into his lab on the evening of January 12, 1896. Eben Hardin, Pender Porter, and Osmond L. Barringer collected various objects to photograph with the x-ray machine: a cadaver finger (taken from the North Carolina Medical College) stuck with two pins and wearing a ring (borrowed from Barringer’s girlfriend); a rubber covered magnifying glass; a pill box containing two 22 cartridges, one pin, two rings, and six Strychnine pills (commonly used by students at that time to stay awake during finals); and an egg that been emptied and had a button placed inside.
The students exposed the objects to the x-ray fot three hours and successfully took an image of the objects. The students kept their experiments a secret for many years, fearing they would be punished. When the truth did come out, the boys were lauded for beating Dr. Smith to the honor of taking one of the first x-ray images in America.
Dr. Smith immediately began x-ray experiments of his own, only shortly after the boys took their image sub rosa. His first photograph was of a 22 caliber bullet inside a cadaver hand (given to him from the North Carolina Medical College). On February 27, 1896 an article about his work and several x-ray photographs were published in the Charlotte Observer, bringing with it attention to Dr. Smith’s work.
Dr. Smith was soon able to use x-rays to assist doctors at a local hospital. The x-ray machine located a broken needle lodged into a man’s knee, allowing for surgical removal. This was the first documented use of x-rays in a medical procedure in the United States.
In 1897, there was a more dramatic case. Dr. Smith was approached by the brother of a dying ten year old girl (Ellen Harris). The girl claimed that she accidentally swallowed an open-ended thimble, but doctors were doubtful of the girl’s story (believing she had an advanced case of tonsillitis) and unwilling to operate. Meanwhile, the girl was suffering great pain and slowly starving to death. With the help of the girl’s family, Dr. Smith transported his x-ray equipment by wagon to their home in Catawba County. The x-rays, taken in the kitchen, revealed the rusting thimble lodged in her throat.
These images persuaded the Charlotte hospital that surgery was necessary; Dr. Smith operated his x-ray machine during the surgery in order to direct the doctors, saving the girl’s life.
Smith went on to become the president of both Davidson College and Washington and Lee, but the x-ray experiments completed by him and his students were invaluable contributions to American medicine.
X-Rays – Works Cited
Harris, Ellen. Personal Account. X-ray – Davidson College 1896-1939 Davidsoniana file. Davidson College Archives, Davidson, NC.
Omicron Delta Kappa. X-Ray display. Article, Charlotte Observer, 27 February 1896. 1927. RG 6/14.06. Omicron Delta Kappa – Records. Davidson College Archives, Davidson College, NC.
Omicron Delta Kappa. X-Ray display. Article, Davidson College Magazine, January 1848. 1927. RG 6/14.06. Omicron Delta Kappa – Records. Davidson College Archives, Davidson College, NC.
Omicron Delta Kappa. X-Ray display. Letter to Dr. Lafferty, 29 November 1921. 1927. RG 6/14.06. Omicron Delta Kappa – Records. Davidson College Archives, Davidson College, NC.
Omicron Delta Kappa. X-Ray display. Article,”Some Southern Pioneers in X-Ray: An Historical Note,” Radiology, September 1926. 1927. RG 6/14.06. Omicron Delta Kappa – Records. Davidson College Archives, Davidson College, NC.
Sprunt, William H. III, “Radiology in North Carolina: 1896-1916,” North
Carolina Medical Journal. Vol 18.7. July 1957: p 269-76. X-ray – Davidson College 1940-2000 Davidsoniana file. Davidson College Archives, Davidson, NC.
Author: Tammy Ivins
Date: April 2008
Cite as: Ivins, Tammy. “X-Ray”
Davidson Encyclopedia June 2008. https://digitalprojects.davidson.edu/omeka/s/encyclopedia/page/x-rays