by Emily Orley
My grandfather was a radiologist.
He was born in January 1892 in Bialystok, which was then in Russia.
Three years later, in Wurzburg, Germany, Professor Roentgen discovered x-rays while experimenting with a cathode tube. For the first time, the bones inside living bodies were made visible. Flesh was made transparent.
Most of the following words are not my own.
Italo Calvino says: “In other words, you and I are only meeting places for messages from the past.”[i]
Mary Paterson writes: “Our bodies do not keep us apart.”[ii]
X-rays are a form of electromagnetic radiation which are emitted when a tungsten target is bombarded with fast electrons in a vacuum tube. They have an extremely short wavelength which means that they can pass through most substances, including human soft tissue, casting shadows of solid objects in their path, such as metal and bone.
The news of Roentgen’s discovery spread quickly throughout the world. One of his first experiments late in 1895 was a film, or shadowgraph, of his wife Bertha’s hand with a ring on her finger. Of all the first pictures of his that were circulated it was that of the human hand that made the greatest impression upon the public. Everywhere people began testing the new radiation by taking pictures of the bones in their hands.
Human hands contain 27 bones.
Among them, the lunate, the scaphoid, the capitate.
In 27 segments, I will offer a brief and fractured story of the birth of radiology.
In 27 segments, I will put together, as one might assemble the bones of an exhumed hand , the life of one man: a radiologist, an immigrant, my grandfather.
Hamate, triquetrum, pisiform.
Looking back on a life after it has finished, a pattern emerges that often was not visible before. Once the flesh disappears, the bones mark out a particular map, a series of choices, strange coincidences, unlucky accidents and lucky escapes.
And all the metacarpals and the phalanges.
Years ago I found a collection of diary entries and memoirs that my grandfather had put together, edited, written and rewritten in his later life, after his second wife had died. Out of countless episodes he describes, I have counted out a number here to mark out a particular map of his life. The other years, the ones I will not talk about, dissolve like flesh under the radioscopic glare.
Episode one. The beginning. First distal phalanx. The tip of the thumb:
I came to Geneva to study medicine in 1914. I should have got there in October 1913, but was delayed by an attack of typhoid fever while serving in the Russian army.
Because he only arrived in Geneva in the spring of 1914, instead of returning home for the summer holidays he decided to spend it in a nearby region of the French Alps. World War One broke out while he was there. He writes:
Had I gone to Russia for my holidays, I would have been called up as a reservist at the beginning of the War to join my regiment. All the military units in our town belonged to the army corps headed by General Rennenkampf. It was his army that invaded East Prussia right at the beginning of the War. It got bogged down in the Masurian Marshes and was practically annihilated by General Hindenburg’s forces.
I’ve checked historical accounts of the battle. He wasn’t wrong.
Much of the information on Rontgen’s first work with x-rays comes from the account of an English newspaper reporter, Henry Dam. Soon after the discovery, in April 1896 he travelled to Roentgen’s stark working quarters to write an article called ‘The New Marvel in Photography’ for a Canadian magazine. He writes:
“Professor Rontgen entered hurriedly, something like an amiable gust of wind…He wore a dark blue sack suit, and his long, dark hair stood straight up from his forehead, as if he were permanently electrified by his own enthusiasm […] Now then, he said smiling and with some impatience, when some personal questions at which he chafed were over, ‘you have come to see the invisible rays.’”[iii]
Episode 2 in my grandfather’s life.
Russian reservists abroad had not been recalled to Russia, but, caught up in the patriotic fervour of the time, I felt it was my duty to join the allied forces. As a foreigner I could not join the French army, but I could join, I was told the Foreign Legion. The name did not mean anything to me.
Our quarters were at Lyon and for barracks we were given a requisitioned elementary school.
He writes about the limited food they were given and how this made drill particularly exhausting. He was relieved when, as a medical student, he was chosen to work in the infirmary.
I kept on losing weight and must have looked dejected. Our chief, Medecin Major, remarked on several occasions on my poor looks. He was of the opinion, he told us once, that a volunteer should be allowed to change his mind.
One day he told me he wanted to examine my lungs. He diagnosed a tuberculous legion in my left lung and recommended my discharge from the Army.
He returns to Geneva.
In Geneva I consulted a doctor, expecting to be sent to a sanatorium, but he found nothing wrong with my lungs. My chief must have deliberately misled the authorities out of compassion. As a chest specialist, which he was in civilian life, he could not have made a mistake.
In John Berger’s And Our Faces, My Heart, Brief as Photos, on the very last page, he writes: “What reconciles me to my own death more than anything else is the image of a place: a place where your bones and mine are buried, thrown, uncovered, together. They are strewn there pell-mell. One of your ribs leans against my skull. A metacarpal of my left hand lies inside your pelvis. (Against my broken ribs your breast like a flower.) The hundred bones of our feet are scattered like gravel.
It is strange that this image of our proximity, concerning as it does mere phosphate of calcium, should bestow a sense of peace. Yet it does. With you I can imagine a place where to be phosphate of calcium is enough.”[iv]
Episode 3. Once he had finished his studies in Switzerland, at the end of the war, he found himself out of funds so decided, reluctantly, to return home.
I received a letter from my parents, this time from Poland. They were in Moscow for the Bolshevik revolution and lost nearly all their possessions. But my father owned some property in Poland and claimed Polish nationality and they were allowed to leave Russia. Would I come to see them? I did not want to return to Eastern Europe, but I was tired and dispirited, at the end of my tether.
He spent two days travelling by train.
Business was bad and my parents lived mainly on the proceeds of the sale of valuables they had smuggled from Russia. The town was dirty, the buildings dilapidated. On street corners men dressed in ragged clothes were standing around fires, which they kept going with pilfered logs or with wood from abandoned buildings. They were waiting for a miracle. The offer of a job.
He found work at the local hospital.
The wards were filthy, the patients dirty and crawling with lice. Many patients had nothing wrong with them, except that at home they would have starved. The senior physician had not the heart to discharge them.
The hospital had a psychiatry department where peaceful patients were kept in a single ward but violent patients were kept in cubicles in an unheated building. Because they tore their bedclothes, they were given only straw for cover. To conserve body heat some of them remained in a crouched position night and day. In time their knee joints became fixed and they could not stand upright.
9. Metacarpal One
It seemed at first a new kind of invisible light. It was clearly something new, something unrecorded. Is it light? No. Is it electricity? Not in any known form. What is it? I don’t know, said Rontgen.
Although people were calling the new rays Roentgen rays, Roentgen named them X-rays, because in mathematics “X” is used to indicated the unknown quantity.
I don’t, I didn’t know.
10. Metacarpal Two
Field biologists often debate the extent to which elephants experience grief. Long after death has occurred, elephants show an acute interest in bones, in particular skulls and tusks, touching them to their mouths, turning them over, picking them up and carrying them some distance before dropping them.
There are many stories about this. Once, for example, the famous elephant-researcher working in Kenya, Cynthia Moss collected the jaw bone of an old adult cow that had died of natural causes, taking it back to her camp to determine her age. Three days later, the cow’s family passed through the camp, smelled the jaw and made a detour to inspect it before moving on. But one young elephant stayed behind long after the others had gone, repeatedly feeling and stroking the jaw and turning it with his feet and trunk. It was the dead cow’s 7 year old calf.[v]
“What reconciles me to my own death more than anything else is the image of a place: a place where your bones and mine are buried, thrown, uncovered, together. They are strewn there pell-mell.”
It is not our bodies that keep us apart.
11. Metacarpal Three
Dam continues with the account of his visit to Roentgen’s lab:
“Is the invisible visible?” I ask. “Not to the eye but its results are. Come in here … Step inside,” said he, opening the door which was on the side of the box farthest from the tube. I immediately did so, not altogether certain whether my skeleton was to be photographed for general inspection or my secret thoughts held up to light on a glass plate […]
A moment later, the black darkness was penetrated by the rapid snapping sound of the high-pressure current in action, and I knew that the tube outside was glowing […] The moment the current passed, the paper began to glow. A yellowish-green light spread all over its surface in clouds, waves and flashes. The yellow-green luminescence, all the stranger and stronger in the darkness, trembled, wavered, and floated over the paper, in rhythm with the snapping of the discharge. Through the metal plate, the paper, myself and the tin box, the invisible rays were flying, with an effect strange, interesting, and uncanny […]
The discharge was in full force, and the rays were flying through my head, and for all I knew, through the side of the box behind me. But they were invisible and impalpable. They gave no sensation whatever. Whatever the mysterious rays may be, they are not to be seen and are to be judged only by their works.
I thanked the professor, who was happy in the reality of his discovery, and the music of his sparks.[vi]”
12. Metacarpal Four
Seldom has anything so captured the public’s imagination. X-rays promised a means for doing what we have always craved to do – to see through the dark, to pierce the veil, to know the unknowable.[vii] They appeared in advertising, songs and cartoons. Hopes for the new technology reflected a wide spectrum of contemporary concerns. X-rays, many believed, would become a part of everyday culture, from henhouses to the temperance movement, from the detection of flaws in metal to the analysis of broken hearts.[viii]
The year after Roentgen’s discovery, a company came out with lead undergarments to protect from prying eyes.
My mother still remembers having her feet measured by x-ray when going to buy shoes as a little girl. She would look down and see her skeleton feet in a new pair of shoes.
At first the destructive effects of x-rays looked like one more benefit. If x-rays attacked human tissue, perhaps they could attack germs as well as tumours. If radiation was helpful in treating cancer it might also help in improving health in a general way. There was a common idea in the early 20th century that radiation was beneficial in low doses. Radium could be used in creams, shampoos, toothpaste and even for drinking. When x-ray experimenters started losing hair, private clinics started offering x-ray hair removal to women. These clinics were popular until the atomic bomb was dropped on Hiroshima. By 1970, one-third of all radiation-induced cancer in women could be traced back to hair removal.
I did not know.
13. Metacarpal Five
We are born with about 300 soft bones. During childhood and adolescence, the cartilage grows and is slowly replaced by hard bone. Some of these bones later fuse together, so that the adult skeleton has 206 bones.
We lose 94 bones along the way.
14. Proximal Phalanx One
Episode 4 in my grandfather’s life. Poland, August 21st, 1920.
Bad news, the Russian Army is advancing on Poland. In a day or two they will be here.
Several pages later:
I was curious to watch the invasion and shall never forget the sight. The first to come into view were Cossacks mounted on fine horses. They were followed by a detachment of horse artillery. Then came a string of laden peasant carriages, drawn by the small Russian horses. A caravan of loaded camels came next, to be followed by a file of elephants carrying loads on their backs. I left because I had to be in the hospital in time for the morning round of the wards.
15. Proximal Phalanx Two
Until the x-ray, all knowledge of human anomalies (apart from visible ones) was limited to those found by anatomists at dissection. But now, new living anatomy was being shown on radiographs.
As this different view of the body came about, the interpretation of shadows had to be made with care. Early radiologists were like aircraft spotters.[ix] Abnormalities of forensic importance were (still are) often subtle and the shadows cast by the new rays could often be confusing. And, of course, what was normal?
By the 1920s, radiology was becoming recognised as a distinct medical speciality. In the 1930s there was a gradual standardisation of projections which culminated in the publication of Positioning in Radiography by Kitty Clark in 1939, which remains in print today.
It was all about the position. We could see if there was something wrong with my head if I put it in the same position as yours.
Apparently it was one of Francis Bacon’s favourite text books.[x]
16. Proximal Phalanx Three
Berger writes: “The visible brings the world to us. But at the same time it reminds us ceaselessly that it is a world in which we risk to be lost.”[xi]
17. Proximal Phalanx Four
Episode 5 in my grandfather’s life. 1921.
The Soviet Army is defeated at Warsaw and practically annihilated.
It begins making its way back through our town. Wounded soldiers in ambulances and un-sprung peasant carts kept on arriving at the hospital and soon, not only all the beds, but also the floor between was occupied. We could take no more and I had to stand in the hospital yard turning away exhausted drivers.
Our Russians were leaving. Somehow, the Commandant managed to organise a Hospital Train and the District Polish Medical Officer and I were ordered to accompany the train to Russia. We hid as patients in a hospital ward and emerged bosom friends only after the Russians had left. Later on he helped me to leave Poland, unaware of the false pretences for my journey abroad.
He had made himself invisible. And then visible again.
18. Proximal Phalanx Five
In his Presidential address to the Roentgen Society in Britain in 1916, Dr J.H. Gardiner said: “It is a curious thing, but it often happens, that nature appears to resent an intrusion into her secrets, and will sometimes make the intruder pay dearly. It was so in the case of x-rays, not only was the beneficent provision that we call pain (which tells us that something is wrong if there is time to remedy it) withheld, but the harm that was being done gave no warning, and thus was continued until after some weeks’ interval the result of the accumulated indiscretions became apparent. I will not pursue this unhappy subject further; enough to say that the most active and earnest of our workers were the worst victims, and the result was seen in empty chairs at our councils and in the vanishing of familiar figures at our meetings. All honour to their memory.[xii]”
I did not know.
In April 1939 a memorial to the x-ray martyrs of the world was erected in the grounds of St George’s hospital in Hamburg. Today it is inscribed with the names of 350 people.
“The hundred bones of our feet are scattered like gravel.”
19. Middle Phalanx One
While the Red army retreated through Poland in the autumn of 1921, local inhabitants were subjected to forced labour to help repair the damage caused by the fighting and looting. Able men were taken from their beds in the middle of the night.
If only I could escape the country. Under the prevailing conditions this would be impossible without a Polish exit visa and a permit to enter the nearest foreign country, East Prussia.
During this time, bacterial dysentery was widespread in the town, causing many child fatalities. He devised a simple rehydration treatment using an enema can and a hypodermic needle which apparently saved the life of a number of children.
I imagine the following story became one that he rehearsed in his head.
Just when a battle was raging between detachments of retreating Russians and advancing Poles, with bullets whistling around, a woman appeared at the hospital and implored me to follow her with my appliance to her home, some distance away, to treat her young son dying from dysentery. I pointed out to her the danger of walking through the streets at that moment, but in the end yielded to her entreaties, followed her home and gave the child the treatment. On my return, I was stopped by a Polish patrol and ordered to produce my identity card. The leader examined it and said: ‘You are a Jew’. ‘Yes’ I said. He hit me hard and called me names and took away all the money I kept in my pocket-book. At that moment I resolved to leave the accursed country, never to return.
I imagine that this episode came to justify his decision to leave Poland and his family whom he would never see again.
I don’t know.
20. Middle Phalanx Two
Singer, producer and film composer Stephen Coates in a book called X-Ray Audio writes:
“Many older people in Russia remember seeing and hearing strange, spooky vinyl type flexi discs when they were young. They were called bones or ribs and contained music forbidden by the Soviet censor. They originated in the period from about 1946 to around 1964, during which the sound of such forbidden music became associated with images of the human skeleton. For, in a time when the recording industry was ruthlessly controlled by the state, bootleggers had discovered an extraordinary alternative means of reproduction: they were repurposing used x-ray film as the base for making bootleg records.”[xiii]
The recordings were produced laboriously one by one, the x-rays often cut into circles with nail scissors then burned out in the centre with a cigarette so they could be seated on turntables.
One of the first men to encode music on to exposed x-rays from medical archives and hospital dustbins, Ruslan Bogoslowski, spent a total of 15 years in prison, at least five in Siberia, for his daring.
In Coates’ words: “They are images of pain and damage inscribed with the sound of forbidden pleasure; fragile photographs of the interiors of Soviet citizens, layered with the ghostly music that they secretly loved.”[xiv]
21. Middle Phalanx Three
Episode 7. 1921. Preparations for departure from Poland.
Circumstances favoured me. Tuberculosis was rife at that time. To combat the spread of the disease, the government decided to open throughout the country tuberculosis treatment centres. I would be in charge of the one in Bialystok.
I volunteered to go to Germany to purchase the various bits of equipment necessary to set up the centre as they were not available in Poland. For this I was provided with a Polish foreign passport and an entry visa for Germany.
All I needed now was money. I sold my microscope and a fine pre-War bicycle, while my father sold his best fur-coat on the black market.
One fine day I left the country by train. It stopped at the Polish frontier station. From there I had to cross a width of no-man’s land on foot to the nearest German railway station. When safely on German soil, I turned round and looking at the land I had just left, I said aloud: “Blessed be this day in which I left the accursed land.” The German guard looked at me with surprise. “Aren’t you a Pole?” she asked. “No”, I said, “I am not”.
He never returned.
22. Middle Phalanx Four
He never discovered what happened to his mother, Hannafreida.
23. Distal Phalanx One
Several episodes, here, fused.
I met my future first wife in Berlin. She was the daughter of a Russian refugee, an ex-Bank Manager. She was very well educated and of a kindly nature. For a time we lived with her parents in their flat in Berlin.
After around eight to nine years in Berlin, where he began by translating medical textbooks and working in a sanatorium he discovered that the only country that would recognise his Geneva medical degree with only three further examinations was the UK.
His wife and parents-in-law joined him in London.
He had a daughter who he does not mention. She appears on a deed-poll notice when my grandfather changed his name from Avram Orlianksy to Alexander Orley in 1931. Her surname changed too.
My wife began to show symptoms of insanity and after a few months had to be confined to a special institution. I obtained a divorce during one of her ‘lucid periods’.
He says no more about her. Although my mother told me that once he found her talking to a spoon.
She spent the rest of her life in an institution. Their daughter did not go on living with her father but was sent off to boarding school and spent the holidays with her grandmother. She used to come and stay with us when I was growing up. I found her difficult. I didn’t understand then.
I did not know.
24. Distal Phalanx Two
More fused episodes.
At this same time he qualified as a radiologist and set up a private practice just off Harley Street.
He helped found the Radiologists Visiting Club which is still running today.
He met his second wife, my grandmother.
He mentions the birth of one of his sons (my father), but then not the other. Not the one with Downs Syndrome. Another child forgotten.
He writes a book on neuroradiology. How to x-ray the brain. He publishes it twice. By the time the second edition emerges it is already nearly out of date. The CT scan and MRI are developing quickly and so much of his research is obsolete.
I did not know.
25. Distal Phalanx Three
Radiology, now more commonly referred to as Medical Imaging, has had a huge impact over the last one hundred years. It is now a sophisticated high technology specialty. It has radically changed the way we see our bodies: as full of living tissue, living tissue that sometimes behaves in strange ways. But those strange ways can now be diagnosed and sometimes can be treated. I do not know.
26. Distal Phalanx Four
A last episode.
In 1942, his second wife fell ill with polineuritis.
She was stricken by a rare form of paralysis, sometimes known as ‘the Creeping Paralysis’, which is often fatal. Molly survived, but the lower part of her body was completely paralysed. It took her two years to learn to walk with the aid of two sticks.
They moved to Guernsey soon after the Second World War, where they believed the milder climate would be better for her health. Alec became the Island radiologist.
In 1973 Molly was sticken with the same kind of paralysis which had struck her in 1942 but this time she died from it.
“What reconciles me to my own death more than anything else is the image of a place: a place where your bones and mine are buried, thrown, uncovered, together…A metacarpal of my left hand lies inside your pelvis.”
27. Distal Phalanx Five (the tip of the little finger)
I discovered that when my grandfather found himself just outside Geneva at the outbreak of the First World War, Jorge Luis Borges, his parents and his sister were also stranded there, while on holiday from Argentina.
In Borges’ short story, ‘Tlon, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius’, he writes
“Things duplicate themselves on Tlon; they also tend to grow vague or sketchy, and to lose detail when they begin to be forgotten. The classic example is the doorway that continued to exist so long as a certain beggar frequented it, but which was lost to sight when he died. Sometimes a few birds, a horse, have saved the ruins of an amphitheatre.”[xv]
Maybe when things are lost to sight we need a different kind of light to see them.
I don’t know.
Emily Orley is practitioner-researcher whose work includes performance, installation and art- (or place- or commemorative-) writing. She is interested in exploring ideas to do with memory and mis-memory, maintenance and enchantment, history, heritage and place (and how these all co-exist). As an artist and academic, she is a firm believer in breaking down the false binaries that separate practice and theory, making and thinking and writing about making. She has been making work on her own and in collaboration for 16 years and currently lectures at the University of Roehampton in the Drama, Theatre and Performance Department.
[i] Italo Calvino, The Complete Cosmicomics. Trans. M. McLaughlin, T. Parks and W. Weaver. London: Penguin Classics, 2009, p.233
[ii] Mary Paterson, Consider This, 2014 [online] Available at: http://www.haranczaknavarre.co.uk/files/Consider%20this%20(Control%20Signal).pdf [Accessed 31 May 2016]
[iii] Otto Glasser, and Boveri, M, Wilhelm Conrad Röntgen and the early history of the Roentgen rays, London: John Bale, Sons & Danielsson, Ltd, 1933,p.7
[iv] John Berger, And Our Faces, My Heart, Brief As Photos. New York: Pantheon Books, 1984, p.101
[v] Martin Meredith, Elephant Destiny: Biography of an Endangered Species in Africa, New York: PublicAffairs, 2001, p.187
[vi] Otto Glasser, and Boveri, M, Wilhelm Conrad Röntgen and the early history of the Roentgen rays, London: John Bale, Sons & Danielsson, Ltd, 1933, pp.8-10
[vii] John H. Lienhard, Inventing Modern: Growing up with X-rays, Skyscrapers and Tailfins, Oxford: Oxford University Press , 2003, p.46
[viii] Edwin Gerson, ‘X-ray Mania: The “X-Ray” in Advertising, Circa 1895’, Conference paper, 2003. Available at: http://pubs.rsna.org/doi/full/10.1148/rg.242035157 [Accessed 15 May 2016]
[ix] Adrian Thomas, The History of Radiology, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013, pp.20-22
[x] Adrian Thomas, The History of Radiology, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013, pp.26-28
[xi] John Berger, And Our Faces, My Heart, Brief As Photos. New York: Pantheon Books, 1984, p.50
[xii] Simon Lee & Michael Crean (Eds.), The Story of Radiology, Volume 2, Vienna: European Society of Radiology, 2013, p.45. Available at http://www.bshr.org.uk/pdfs/The_Story_of_Radiology_Volume_2_LR.pdf [Accessed 13 May 2017]
[xiii] Stephen Coates, Heartfield, P. and Fuchs, R. (2015). X-ray Audio. London: Strange Attractor Press, 2015, p.9
[xiv] Stephen Coates, Heartfield, P. and Fuchs, R. (2015). X-ray Audio. London: Strange Attractor Press, 2015, p.9
[xv] Jorge Luis Borges, Fictions, trans. A. Hurley, London: Peguin Classics, 2000, p.20