Birth of radiotherapy

Birth of radiotherapy

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First trials of cancer treatment with x-rays.

© Photo Archives, Assistance publique, Paris.

Publication date: September 2004


Birth of radiotherapy


Historical context

It took less than a year between the discovery of X-rays by the German physicist Conrad Röntgen (1845-1923), in November 1895, and the first attempts at medical applications for therapeutic purposes, in July 1896. Radiology opens a new era, that of medical imaging, which will revolutionize medical practices, the results of the fight against disease and also, one day, patient expectations.

Image Analysis

The radiologist, the great organizer of this scene, is also the painter of the painting. During his studies at the Ecole des Beaux-Arts, Georges Chicotot was passionate about anatomy to the point of undertaking medical studies, while continuing his activity as a painter (he exhibits each year at the Salon des Artistes Français in 1877 to 1913). After his thesis, in 1899, he started at the Broca hospital and became head of the radiology laboratory in 1908. It is with the objectivity and precision of a man of science that he depicts an ordinary scene of life. pioneers of this new specialty, “at a time when radiology was in its infancy”. His project is to give a faithful representation, for descriptive purposes, with the intention of leaving "documents for the future". "These are not tables of social living room", he still wants to clarify.
The composition is subject to a geometrical discipline. On the right, the vertical of the main character. On the left, a second vertical axis which occupies the upper half of the painting on two successive planes: the X-ray bulb placed in a Crookes tube (mounted on an articulated stand) and, against the wall, a piece of furniture on which appear LED lights. control. Between these two verticals, and like a link, the patient lying down. The “grid” is further emphasized by the horizontal and vertical lines of the furniture in the room. This cold objectivity says nothing of the strangeness of the "radiological operation" (as they said at the time) experienced, according to the testimony of the time, as an impressive event: the room was plunged in darkness, the X-ray bulb emitted a yellow-green glow (and we thus understand the choice of the chromatic range used by the painter), the action of the motor was accompanied by crackling and rumbling, finally the sparks produced gave off an acid smell and sickening ozone. But the patient seems to be sleeping and her anxiety will remain an enigma, as the painter has chosen to emphasize the perfect mastery of the operation.


We can only be surprised today, in front of this scene, at the total lack of protection of the patient and the radiologist, both exposed to dangerous radiation. But the time is still that of the first stammerings: Chicotot holds in his right hand a gas torch, intended to regulate the high tension of the current which passes through the bulb; at the same time, he controls the exposure time with his watch (30 minutes in 1897, but already more than 10 seconds in 1899). And if he has the coquetry to keep his top hat (distinctive sign of his quality of "boss" at a time when for the sake of hygiene all the doctors are now in white coats), he granted enough attention to the publication in 1904 of Dr Antoine Béclère (the "father of French radiology"): Means of protecting doctors and patients against the harmful action of new radiation, where the author recommends the first rules to be adopted? Lead-lined screens and cabins, aprons, goggles and protective gloves began to appear in Germany. These rules would not become mandatory until 1922. Like many radiologists, Chicotot died from radiothermal energy [1].

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The Rays of Life. A history of the medical applications of X-rays and radioactivity in France, 1895-1930catalog of the exhibition at the Institut Curie museum, 11 Sept. - 31 Dec. 1998, Paris, 1998 Pr Guy PALLARDY, Marie-José PALLARDY and Auguste WACKENHEIMIllustrated history of radiologyParis, Editions Roger Dacosta, 1989

To cite this article

Anne NARDIN, "Birth of radiotherapy"

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