On November 8, 1895, German physicist Wilhelm Roentgen inadvertently made a significant contribution to medical science. Historical records indicate that on that day he was trying to replicate earlier experiments reported by others in which invisible cathode rays escaped from a thin aluminum window, produced a luminescent effect on fluoroscopic salts, and darkened a photographic plate. During his work, he serendipitously noticed a faint green glow, moving like wispy clouds, near a fluorescent screen that was on a bench several feet away. He concluded that a different kind of ray was mixed with the cathode rays and was amazed to find that when he held materials between the cathode-ray tube and the fluorescent screen, he could see a shadow of the bones and soft tissue in his hand as if his skin were transparent. At that moment, radiology was born. During the early part of the next century, professional organizations, such as the Radiological Society of North America (RSNA), were founded to support this new medical science.
Radiologists Seek Legitimacy
The importance of Roentgen's discovery was immediately clear to many physicians worldwide: x-rays could be used to see inside a patient without the patient having to undergo the trauma and invasiveness of surgery. In 1899, Francis Williams, MD, a Boston internist, saw radiology as the way to facilitate a diagnosis of diseases of the lungs and heart. But many respected physicians remained skeptical about the value of x-rays. For example, after hearing Dr Williams present a paper on the advantages of x-ray use, F. C. Shattuck, MD, the famous professor of clinical medicine, stated, "I can see broken bones [and] metallic foreign bodies in the extremities, but when it comes to x-rays of the chest and to some extent of the abdomen, I am much less clear. Frank Williams has shown you plates and tells you that the heart is here and that the lung is here. Now I can't see a thing in these plates and, to be truthful, I don't think he can 1".
Consequently, physicians who saw the medical potential of x-rays realized that they needed to band together, form a professional society, and, through strength in numbers, show how radiology could be a critical part of the healthcare armamentarium. By 1900, the American Roentgen Ray Society (ARRS) was founded primarily as a forum for furthering progress in radiology. ARRS was dedicated to the advancement of medicine through radiology and its allied sciences. ARRS held its first annual meeting in New York City later that year. One hundred fifty physicians, scientists, inventors, and exhibitors attended.
Need Arises for a New Regional Society
The ARRS flourished throughout the first decade of the 20th century. But as the years passed, many radiologists who lived and practiced primarily in or near Midwestern cities such as St Louis, Chicago, Detroit, and Cleveland began feeling ignored by the ARRS because the ARRS continually held its annual meetings on the East Coast. The location of the ARRS meetings reflected the fact that the professional society had grown into an organization comprising mostly members from the Eastern states. Yet, in the early 20th century, this made the cost of travel to the ARRS annual meetings time-consuming and economically prohibitive for radiologists who lived west of the Appalachian mountains. In addition, many physicians believed ARRS membership requirements had become too restrictive. For instance, radiologists usually had to have published at least one paper before becoming a full-fledged ARRS member 2.
By 1915, almost 20 years after Roentgen discovered the x-ray, Midwestern radiologists talked of forming a new professional organization. Edwin C. Ernst, MD, a St Louis radiologist, had just completed another arduous journey to the East Coast to attend a midwinter meeting of the ARRS. He believed the time had come to create an independent, regional radiologic society based in the central part of the country. He arranged for a special meeting with other radiologists to discuss the feasibility of his idea. This meeting was held in the office of Miles B. Titterington, MD, also of St Louis. In attendance were Drs Ernst and Titterington, as well as Gray C. Briggs, MD, also of St Louis, and Fred S. O'Hara, MD, who made the 100-mile trip from Springfield, Illinois.
At that meeting, the five physicians concluded that it would be unwise to found a new radiologic society without opinions from additional Midwestern radiologists. Consequently, they enlisted the support of George W. Brady, a manufacturer and salesman of x-ray equipment accessories who knew many radiologists, technicians, and hospital administrators in the area. Brady offered to assume the expense of mailing surveys to his customers to gauge the desire for a new organization. Surprisingly, some prominent radiologists showed little interest in a new society that proposed to admit members with few restrictions. There was enough of a positive response, however, that the five physicians went ahead with their plans. First, they developed a roster of 62 charter members who had sent annual dues of $10. Of these charter members, all but six had medical degrees. These six were given "associate" rather than "active" status in the organization. Only one charter member appears to have had no direct connection to radiology, the wife of co-founder Dr O'Hara. B. H. Orndoff, MD, an early leader of the new medical society, wrote that the professional organization was unique because it was "constructed on democratic principles and dedicated to the study and practical application of [radiology]" (3). Second, the founding physicians planned an organizational meeting. They arranged to hold this meeting on December 15 and 16, 1915, at the Hotel Sherman in downtown Chicago, a central conveniently reached location for most Midwestern radiologists. Thirty of the 62 charter members attended, representing 17 states. Dr O'Hara became the temporary chairman, and Dr Titterington became the secretary. As a reflection of the "democratic principles" of this group, Howard Raper, a dentist, was selected to be the treasurer. The new organization was officially named the Western Roentgen Society to differentiate it from the ARRS.
By the end of that year, theoretical physicist Albert Einstein had developed his general theory of relativity. Europe was engulfed in a great war. X-rays were being used to examine ailments of the chest, alimentary tract, and skeletal system. And in the American Midwest, a new medical organization was poised to support radiologists and their role in healthcare.