The man who made the first x-ray movie

It is quite astonishing that in 1896  someone was already making a movie of an x-ray. Even more remarkable is the story of the man who produced it.  Here’s the movie (it starts with a frog’s leg and moves to a human heart and stomach):

In January that year Wilhelm Röntgen wrote from Würzburg seeking support of the two leading British physicists – Lord Kelvin in Glasgow and Arthur Schuster in Manchester.

Kelvin was delighted to help and Glasgow was quick off the mark – led by John Macintyre (pictured below, left).  By March he had secured agreement to establish the world’s first x-ray department for patients at Glasgow Royal Infirmary.

Macintyre was the right man in the right place at the right time.   He had started out as a sparkie (apprentice electrician) before studying medicine and had already brought electricity to the infirmary in 1887  when Glasgow’s streets were still gas lit.

He was also a specialist in ear, nose and throat surgery. Macintyre was one of the very first international celebrity surgeons. His list of friends and patients included Ignacy Paderewski, Sir Henry Irvine, Dame Nellie Melba, Luisa Tettrazzini, Thomas Edison and Joseph Conrad.

John Macintyre

courtesy of Glasgow University

Wihelm Rontgen

courtesy of Frankfurt University

Who did what and where with x-rays from 1896 onwards remains the subject of debate. Macintyre certainly produced among the first, if not the first, radiographs of a bullet, thorax, abdomen and breast cancer. And the first movie was definitely his.

According to John Calder (The History of Radiology in Scotland, 1896-2000, Dunedin Academic Press, 2001) he was a hard-working and genial charmer.  He realised early on  the dangers of x-ray radiation – unlike so many of his colleagues around Europe who lost limb and life. They  are commemorated on the wall of the Radiation Martyrs’  Monument in Hamburg.  The British Society for the History of Radiology has a wealth of material about this.

The Macintyre building at Glasgow University is commonly thought be named after him – but it was the gift of a namesake and fellow doctor.  This is Macintyre’s biography and there is a charming documentary broken down into segments of the cigar-smoking pioneer

This profile from 1909  refers to voice recordings of patients he made on phonograph wax cylinders of many of his celebrity patients and visitors to his home and consulting rooms at 179 Bath Street, next door to the Glasgow Art Club where he was a frequent visitor. Given his links with Edison, the recordings would surely have been of high quality.

But for some reason they all melted in the heat of his attic (possibly a fire, given the rarity of  prolonged heatwaves of wax-melting intensity in Glasgow). None survived.

At least Macintyre left us the x-ray movie.   A great pity we don’t have the voices of Melba, Paderewski and Conrad to go with it.

Update (May 2015)  I am very grateful to Ross Logan, a distant Macintyre relative, for this information: “according to  family history he had a GP practice in Partick in addition to his hospital work and consulting at his home in Bath Street.  I remember hearing that the wax cylinders, in a trunk in a Partick attic, had melted during the hot summer of 1976. I believe there were recordings of Caruso and many others. I was told that receiving an inheritance allowed him to study medicine. My mother, who remembered him from her childhood, mentioned that Dame Nellie Melba (and other similar luminaries) would visit his home in Bath Street for a consultation and afternoon tea.”

And novelist and journalist Neil Munro  (The Brave Days, pp 108 to 114) recalls a very convivial dinner at 179 Bath Street  in September 1898 with Joseph Conrad and Macintyre. After several refreshments they sat down to listen to Macintyre’s “celebrity” recordings, including those of Paderewski which Munro thought were his first ever recordings,  before having a shot on the x-ray machine.

“We had our hands x-rayed and before we left for a stroll through the sleeping city which lasted till three am, we got the photograph prints of them” Munro wrote.

Conrad later recounted this epic night in a letter to his friend, Edward Garnett. He had come to Glasgow to arrange a ship’s passage and overall self-confidence was very low. The dinner and various philosophical blethering evidently cheered him up:

“Mclntyre (sic) is a scientific swell who talks art, knows artists of all kinds, looks after their throats, you know. He has given himself a lot of trouble in my interest and means to hammer away at it till I do get something.

“…. What we wanted (apparently) was more whisky. We got it. Mrs Mclntyre went to bed. At one o’clock Munro and I went out into the street. We talked. I had read up the Lost Pibroch which I do think wonderful in a way.  We  foregathered very much indeed and I believe Munro didn’t get home till five in the morning. He turned up next day and burned incense before me, and saw me into the train after a dinner at the Art Club (not to speak of the whisky). “

Categories: gems from the archive, history on the web, medical and nursing

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2 replies

  1. What a fascinating read. Love the way the ‘sparky’ morphed into the medicine man. Think it’s what women call multi-tasking.

    Thank you. Very much enjoyed.



  1. On This Date: November 8th | Bloggo Schloggo

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