Sunday, May 3, 2009

The first X-rays in Auckland - 1897

Image from Wikipedia.

Today, X-rays are part and parcel of medical equipment, and an expected part of the diagnostic procedure for many things that ail us. I remember my mother (who lived in California during the late 1940s-early 1950s) saying that x-ray machines could even be seen in shoe shops there at that time (of course, this probably didn't do all that much good for ensuing bone and other forms of cancer, but ...) X-rays for most of the 20th century have been accepted. Not so when they first came to New Zealand, in the late 1890s.

It appears that the Auckland Hospital authorities do not intend, at any rate at present, to obtain the necessary apparatus for utilising the famous Röntgen rays for medical or surgical purposes. The matter was considered, but it was not thought wise to spend something like £40 in this way until the methods of utilising the discovery for the treatment of accidents and disease were considerably improved. It is only about twelve months ago since the world was startled by the discovery, and as the whole matter is still in an experimental stage the Hospital people have apparently decided to wait. Careful experiments have been made at the Sydney University, and it is stated that the Sydney Hospital authorities have countermanded an order which they had sent Home for the apparatus. Some experiments have been made at the Auckland Hospital, and though these proved most interesting, they are not altogether satisfactory from a medical point of view, and it seems clear that there are few cases indeed in which the Röntgen rays would prove of much practical use. Of course the possibilities of the discovery from a medical point of view are very great, but the Hospital authorities think they can well afford to await further developments.
19 January, 1897, NZ Herald, p. 5, col 2

Good on the medical authorities for being cautious, really. This was something dramatically new, they couldn't take risks. Then again, it took a fair while for their predecessors to get used to the idea of germ-free medicine, so I've heard said ...

Anyway, what would we have done without our entrepreneurs, eh? Where medical science hesitated over the innovation, in comes the businessman-cum-performer. They knew full well, after selling tickets for stuff like laughing gas performances, that the Victorian-era public would be dead keen to see another miracle of science. In this case, however, Mackie specifically targeted the general practitioners.
The Röntgen X Rays apparatus is now being shown by Mr. C. E. Mackie in a shop directly opposite Mr. J Tonson Garlick’s furnishing warehouse in Queen-street, large attendances presenting themselves each evening to witness the exhibition by this wonderful result of scientific research. On Tuesday evening a private test was given before a large attendance of the local medical fraternity, one and all of whom expressed themselves surprised and delighted at the marvellous results arrived at. A splendid photograph of the bones of the hand of Dr. T. Hope Lewis, for which six minutes exposure was allowed, the negative being decidedly clearer than a similar portrait sent forward with the exhibition, in which the exposure was stated to be considerably over double the length of time.
21 January 1897, NZ Herald, p. 5, col. 3

By the description, Charles Edward Mackie's shop sounds like it was around about where the Metro conplex is today. That place where they thought to run a Planet Hollywood, but that faded, leaving the space-art decorations behind, and a facade of an old building. Mackie (1865-1937) was a photo-engraver by trade. He's buried in Hillsborough Cemetery. He deserves a bit more notice than he's had up to now, I'd say -- seeing as he was also one of the early importers of the "cinematographe".
Mr. C. E. Mackie, of Queen-street, has received one of the latest and most improved of those wonderful electrical machines, the cinematographe, which will be erected and in working order this evening, when it will be shown at his rooms in conjunction with the X-rays ….During the past week, the Röntgen X-rays shown by Mr. Mackie have been largely used by the medical fraternity with excellent results, several maimed and broken limbs, the injuries to which could not be otherwise located, having been photographed.
9 February 1897, NZ Herald, p. 5, col. 3

A most interesting operation was performed yesterday by the aid of the Röntgen rays. A Mrs. Tait was suffering from the effects of a needle embedded in the sole of the foot, and a photograph of it was taken for surgical use, by Mr. Mackie. The photograph showed the needle quite plainly, but the difficulty lay in ascertaining its precise position, whether right or left of the centre line of the foot. The attending surgeon then, by means of wire, divided the foot off into squares, but this was not successful. A third trial, however, was. This result was obtained by making a slight incision along the sole of the foot, and placing therein a piece of silver wire. A photograph was then taken from above the limb, and the head of the needle, which was in a vertical position, was seen as a small black speck, and located. Its removal was after that an easy surgical matter.
4 May 1897, NZ Herald, p. 5, col. 2

Even with successes like this, radiology was still only slowly accepted up until the First World War when its usefulness was finally universally recognised, according to the website for the Royal Australian and New Zealand College of Radiologists.


  1. There was a story I read somewhere about the novelty of them being such that Queen Elizabeth's father posed for some x-rays which were later displayed as a sort of encouragement to stop the general public from being afraid of them.

  2. Interesting story. If he did, it was probably as Prince George. Here's his right hand from 1932.

  3. Yep, meant to say it was before Dickie abdicated and tossed poor George the job.

  4. His brother wasn't a Dickie (Richard), he was an Eddie (Edward). But I know what you mean! ;)