The History of Radiology

May 20, 2018 – 6 min read

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Most of us will have some form of x-ray at some point in our life. Whether a childhood injury pointed to a potential fracture or a lasting cough led to a lung scan, there are plenty of reasons why someone might end up having an x-ray or MRI. Yet, this somewhat modern technology is a convenience and privilege that has had an interesting past. The history of how x-rays and MRIs came to be is a fascinating one, and it’s a story that continues to evolve.

The medical imaging team at Touchstone Imaging can bring you the professional service you need to get the answers you deserve. Our team is comprised of highly competent and trained individuals who are the brains and backbone of our state-of-the-art technology. See how radiology came to be in our blog, and schedule your next visit with Touchstone Imaging!

Earliest Forms of Medicine

Part of what makes the journey into how x-rays and MRIs developed so intriguing is due to the earliest and most ancient medical practices. Medicine took a very, very long time to get to where it is today—and as anyone who’s had a frustrating medical experience could tell you, we’re still far from understanding all the intricacies and complexities of the human body. The earliest forms of medicine dealt with various maladies and illnesses in highly unique ways (or at least, unique by today’s standards).

Spirituality and Illness

In ancient human times, things such as a cold or a relatively mild sickness were treated in fairly similar manners as we do today. While people weren’t exactly drowning themselves in Nyquil or Vicks VapoRub, our earliest ancestors relied on herbs and different plants to provide relief.

The biggest difference came down to more serious ailments. The more severe afflictions were often thought to have a supernatural origin, such as being possessed by a demon or having a curse placed by an enemy or a god who felt wronged. A method that was practiced in several cultures, across several continents, was called trepanning, in which holes were bored into the skull. No more than 5 cm across, these holes were thought to release the demon or disease from the body. In addition to trepanning, several other remedies often involved dancing, chants, music, and recommendations from the earliest shamans to remove the evil from the body.

Earliest Physicians

Towards the third millennia (BCE), the world started seeing a shift from viewing sickness as a paranormal. This wasn’t the case in every culture around the globe, and to this day, there are still cultures or indigenous tribes that have beliefs in the connection between physical disease being a representation of spiritual disease. In ancient Egypt, a man by the name of Imhotep was one of the first physicians. He started as a chief minister to a pharaoh, and eventually was regarded as a god of medicine.

In the 19th century, Edwin Smith was an American who studied ancient Egyptian science. His work led to the acquisition of the aptly named Edwin Smith papyrus, which was a copy of a medical treatise from 1600 BCE (the original is thought to come from 3000 BCE). As Britannica states, “It reveals the ancient Egyptians’ knowledge of the relation of the pulse to the heart and of the workings of the stomach, bowels, and larger blood vessels.” This coincides with our common knowledge of the ancient Egyptians and their religious practices. With mummification, holy priests would remove the organs and place them in special jars, showing a pretty functional knowledge of certain parts of the human body—although it should be noted that human anatomy was not intensely studied.

The Indus Valley

While the earliest physicians can trace roots back to ancient Egypt, the Indus Valley civilization (also referred to as ancient India) also invested much in the art of medicine. The Vedas were a text that was dedicated to providing references and resources regarding maladies and illness. Although Hindu beliefs prohibited from cutting open a body (thus limiting knowledge of human anatomy and exploration), earliest physicians were thought to “have had a good clinical sense, and their discourses on prognosis contain acute references to symptoms that have grave import.” In fact, many anthropologists argue that between 800 BCE to 1000 CE, a form of vaccination for serious diseases was implemented.

Western Civilization

While x-rays were still a ways from being implemented, the Greeks and Romans set the stage for much of modern medicine. This was the era of Hippocrates, of whom the famous and still-used oath is named for amongst medical professionals. During this time period, some huge developments began to take place. For example, scientists started understanding that air enters the lungs, as well as the fact that blood flows through veins and arteries. This might not seem exceptionally important, but this connects back to information we still seek today. It’s even more incredible to note that these developments in understanding the internal workings of the human body were achieved without radiology, and that we still rely on this information today.

The Enlightenment

When considering western civilization and medicine, the Enlightenment can’t be overlooked. A period of vast scientific achievement, the Enlightenment brought a boom of knowledge that the world had never experienced before. Especially remarkable about this epoch in the middle of the 20th century was the development of technology. In the 17th century, primitive microscopes were constructed, which gave scientists the ability to study blood vessels and bacteria. Without the technological advancements of the Enlightenment, the foundation for the modern x-ray and MRI would never have been laid.

In part two of this two-part series, we’ll continue looking at the tides that began to turn the world of medicine into something more recognizable by modern-day standards. It’s strange to think about the convenience of our medical knowledge and technology, and how an illness or disease would have been treated drastically different in earlier millennia. Luckily for you, the team at Touchstone Imaging can provide you with the assistance and expertise you need for MRIs and radiology. Find the Touchstone Imaging center nearest you to schedule your appointment for x-rays, CT scans, ultrasounds, and so many other radiology services—we look forward to working with you!