X-Rays and Changing Perceptions of Disease and the Body in Germany c. 1900

X-Rays and Changing Perceptions of Disease and the Body in Germany circa 1900

Andrew Warwick

This project explored changing perceptions of disease and the body following the introduction of a new physics-based technology, x-rays, in Germany in 1896. Andrew Warwick's goal was to develop an analytical framework within which the widely varying uses of x-rays in medicine circa 1900 could be understood by situating them within the development of medical practice in the late nineteenth century. This strategy sounds obvious but was far from easy to implement.

We know relatively little about medical practice and the rise of scientific medicine in the decades around 1900. The neglect of surgery's history in particular generates special problems for understanding the early history of x-rays since, in Germany at least, it was surgeons who first found important medical uses for x-ray images. Moreover, while we now possess a rich literature on the sociology of science and technology, no comparable body of work exists on what might be called the sociology of surgical knowledge. By this is meant that we know relatively little about how new surgical procedures are developed and taught, how they are related to surgical skills, support staff, patients, instruments, and machines, how the credibility of new surgical procedures is not only established but maintained in the face of criticism and alternative procedures, and how these various issues relate to the broader development of surgery as a speciality over historical time.

Since x-rays were important to surgery precisely because they impinged upon several of these questions, Andrew Warwick raised and discussed a number of issues relating to the history and sociology of surgery circa 1900. It is also very significant that the first generation of doctors to use x-rays played a major role in developing the technology and adapting it to medical use. Warwick sought to understand how these developments were related to medical skills and practices, and how the reality of disease and anatomy shifted from the stance and gait of whole patients to the shadows of bones and tissues on a photographic plate.