Final Word

A medical X-rated story

X-file two.jpg

X-ray machines and stethoscopes are probably the medical profession’s two best- known diagnostic tools, both with interesting stories.

The stethoscope is the older of the two but its history, depending on how it is told, could also attract a fairly modern use of the prefix ‘x’ – as in ‘X-rated’.

History of X

The history of ‘x’ as an important symbol dates back to at least the early 17th century and originated in the world of mathematics.

René Descartes is credited to have been the first person to use ‘x’ as the symbol for an unknown or variable quantity or figure in his La Géométrie, published in 1637, which in fact also laid the foundation for the term ‘X-rays’ more than two and a half centuries later.

But even before the end of the 17th century, ‘x’ found application as a symbol of the unknown well beyond the field of mathematics – from literature to the legal world – when the identity of someone was not known or had to be kept confidential.

By the late 19th century ‘x’ as a symbol started another important migration when the American artist John Singer Sargent created the portrait of a mysterious, sensual and sexually suggestive Madame X.

This migration was completed when the French playwright Alexandre Bisson wrote his play La Femme X about a ‘fallen’ and eventually murderous woman. The play was staged in 1910 in Paris and on Broadway. A number of movies, starting in 1937, under the title Madame X would follow – the latest in 1966 starring Lana Turner.

In the wake of this development the use of ‘x’ in connection with censorship and pornography would follow. The term ‘X-rated’ came in 1955 when the British Board of Film Sensors introduced an X Certificate for films deemed to be suitable for viewing only by persons older than 16.

The X-ray

In line with the Descartes tradition of using ‘x’ as a symbol for the unknown, when German scientist Wilhelm Conrad Röntgen, professor at Würzburg University, in 1895 discovered rays shorter in wavelength than ultraviolet radiation, he called them X-Strahlen because their nature was unknown to him.

Working with a cathode ray tube in his laboratory, Röntgen observed a fluorescent glow of crystals on a table near his tube.

His research at the time revealed that the new ray could pass through most substances casting shadows of solid objects. Röntgen also discovered that the ray could pass through the tissue of humans, but not through bones and metal objects. One of Röntgen's first experiments late in 1895 was a film of the hand of his wife, Bertha.

It was found that if photographic film was exposed to the electromagnetic radiation (X-rays) emitted when matter is bombarded with fast electrons, it produced opaque images on the picture due to the rays not being able to pass though solid objects.

Though the first use of X-rays (as in an exposed film) was for an industrial (not medical) application (Röntgen produced a radiograph of a set of weights in a box to show his colleagues), a then revolutionary new medical diagnostic tool was born.

By 1899 ‘X-ray’ was used as a verb and as a term meaning an “image made using X-rays” made its appearance in 1934.

The stethoscope

The history of the stethoscope, the medical instrument probably most commonly associated with medical practitioners, and which can easily be told as an X-rated story, started in 1816 with a bashful young French doctor.

The doctor, René Laennec, wrote in his De l’Auscultation Médiate how in 1816 he “was consulted by a young woman labouring under the general symptoms of a diseased heart, and in whose case percussion and the application of the hand were of little avail on account of the “great degree of fatness”.

Placing his ear on the chest of the young woman, “… being rendered inadmissible by the age and sex of the patient, I happened to recollect a simple and well-known fact in acoustics, ... the great distinctness with which we hear the scratch of a pin at one end of a piece of wood on applying our ear to the other.

“Immediately, on this suggestion, I rolled a quire of paper into a kind of cylinder and applied one end of it to the region of the heart and the other to my ear, and was not a little surprised and pleased to find that I could thereby perceive the action of the heart in a manner much more clear and distinct than I had ever been able to do by the immediate application of my ear.”

Finding inspiration from the hearing aid of the day for those hard of hearing, a wooden horn, he built his first instrument as a 25 cm by 2.5 cm hollow wooden cylinder.

The modern stethoscope with its two ear pieces was invented in 1851 by Arthur Leared. George Cammann perfected it for commercial production in 1852 – the standard to this day.

And if you now consider the name of the medical device again and have naughty pictures in mind, you are not quite in line with what the bashful Laennec intended when he named his invention. The name derives from the Greek word stēthos, meaning chest and French skopein for ‘look at’.

Next week we will take a look at a number of contemporary very respectable words with surprisingly ‘X-rated’ backgrounds.

by Piet Coetzer

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