Another, unknown, South primate: X-rays in war!

(To Luisa Carini, Federico Bizzarri, Enzo Cantarano)

As we unfortunately know very well, our country, especially after the annexation of the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies, has not always shone for initiative and prestige. The "Italietta", born with the Unit in the 1870, had not few difficulties, objective and subjective, in facing its new role in the team of other nations, above all European, of more ancient and solid foundation. However, in spite of everything, the primates that the young state succeeded in achieving were not few! One of these is generally unknown to most people and is perhaps known only to the eight history lovers or to the four in medical history or to the two history of military medicine. This is the world record for the use of X-rays in the surgical field for war purposes.

On November 8, 1895, the German physicist Wilhelm Röntgen discovered almost by chance the existence of rays which, not knowing their nature, he called "provisionally" X-rays, that is, unknown. In 1901 he won the Nobel Prize for this. He never patented his discovery and, also for this reason, he died poor and a victim of "his" rays which, in all probability, produced a cancer that killed him in 1923. Within a few months the diagnostic use of rays revolutionized the Medicine. History reports that a radiology service was in operation in a hospital in the United Kingdom the following year. But, as already mentioned, the primacy, once again Italian, of the use of the method in the military health sector is known only to a few connoisseurs of the subject.

We do not know how, in fact, the discovery was made because Röntgen in his will expressed the desire that all his scientific correspondence be burned. While conducting research on the physics of electrical discharges, using a so-called Crookes residual gas tube (a vacuum glass capsule through which an electric current was passed), she saw sparks that generated fluorescence and a sheet of paper, on which she had accidentally been smeared with a solution of barium platinocyanide, shine with a feeble light. When he placed objects of different densities between tube and sheet, to intercept the "quid" that was evidently projected by the tube onto the sheet, he realized that only the images, the shadows, of the denser interposed objects were highlighted on the latter less dense were crossed without leaving a trace on the sheet. He realized that only lead could block any kind of projection. He continued the experiments for months, replacing the sheet of paper with a photographic plate. When he asked his wife, who helped him in his research, to put his hand between the tube and the plate ... he performed the first experimental X-ray in history (December 22, 1895): that of the bones of the hand (including the marriage ring, see photo) by Mrs. Röntgen! On January 1, 1896, he notified about the discovery to a hundred colleagues, in Germany and abroad, including Italy. That dawn of a new year became, for science and society, the dawn of a new era.

The news of the discovery was made public in Italy through the Corriere della Sera papers in the 12-13 January 1896 edition. The same Corriere, in his first announcement, already saw "... the practical application as a great help in surgery". And he explained why: "With such a process, it will be easy to recognize the nature, the importance of fractures, the wounds of weapons, especially those of firearms. In the extraction of the balls above all, the new method of investigation will save the wounded the current method, so tormenting, of the survey, often operated at random".

What Röntgen had discovered, but that it was not entirely clear what it was, was that under certain conditions the electrons that are normally emitted from the tubes with which they were experimenting are transformed into electromagnetic radiation with the ability to penetrate almost any material. It was then discovered that it could cause serious pathologies and genetic damage that can be highlighted in successive generations, and in fact, several raze users developed pathologies related to them. Currently all X-ray uses are carefully and strictly standardized to avoid overexposure.

Interest in X-rays and their practical applications was immediately very much alive in Italy, where some scientists had been recipients of the extract sent by Röntgen on New Year's Day.

The director of the Institute of Physics of Pisa, Angelo Battelli, wanted to verify the possibility of repeating the phenomenon. Together with Angelo Garbasso, professor of mathematical physics, he succeeded in obtaining several images with X-rays, and communicating the 25 in a public conference in January. The January 26 Giuseppe Vicentini, director of the Institute of Physics of the University of Padua, reports the Royal Veneto Institute of Sciences, Letters and Arts and attaches the first diagnostic X-ray (woman's hand with ankylosis) performed on January 18. In Perugia, the February 5, the Milanese Enrico Salvioni was already able to present a new X-ray machine.

Just during a long stay of Röntgen in our country, in Italy, then at war with the Empire of Ethiopia, there was the first important application in surgery of his discovery.

The fact happened in Naples, in the Military Hospital of the Trinity. They were transported here, with the steamer Sumatra, the first wounded in the Abyssinian War, fought by the "civilian Italy against African barbarians", as the propaganda of the time. The March 23 of the 1896 landed, among others, the soldiers Musiani Alfredo (of the 2 ° battalion battalions) and Sinigaglia Leopoldo (of the 5 ° mountain battery) who had reported gunshot wounds and had been declared transportable to Home for the necessary care. The first was reduced by Mai Maret's fight, February 25, where our troops had recorded a never-ending victory. The second had taken part in the 1 March, at the unfortunate battle of Adua, about whose misguided conduct would be too long to be dismantled, but that, in addition to the loss of international credibility of our country and the collapse of the Crispi government, 5000 - Dead 7000 (Denis Mack Smith notes, in his history of Italy from 1861 to 1997, who were more dead in the battle of Adua, than in all previous wars of the Italian Risorgimento put together), 1500 wounded, 3000 prisoners, all over artillery and 11000 rifles ... The defeat was also a moral slap: it proved that the European armies in Africa were not invincible and became a symbol of the struggle for colonialism.

To return to the history of X-rays and the record in their clinical use, the medical lieutenant Colonel Giuseppe Alvaro, who was in relationship with the other Professionals interested in the new diagnostic method, decided autonomously to use it through a device that showed only slight changes compared to the one used by the Röntgen itself. He located with it, and then surgically pulled out the projectiles that had injured two soldiers. Having himself given a communication of his own with a conference, then published in the Giornale Medico of the Royal Army, the fact was destined to leave a clear trace of himself and to legitimize the priority, but only in the Kingdom of Utopia, evidently, not in that of Italy!



Cantarano E, Carini L. History of Medicine and Assistance for Health Professionals, UniversItalia, Rome, 2013, page 156

Hailemelekot A, The Victory of Adwa - The First Victory of Africa over Colonialists, CPE 2007

Marcus HG, A History of Ethiopia, University of California Press, 2002, p. 99

Mack Smith D, Modern Italy: A Political History, University of Michigan Press, 1997

Quirico D, Adua - the battle that changed the history of Italy, Milan, A. Mondadori Ed, 2004.

(in the photo the Military Hospital of the Trinity in Naples in 1896)