Wilhelm Roentgen or Röntgen made medical history by discovering what are now called x-rays. The discovery earned Röntgen much fame and it resulted in him being award a Nobel Prize.


Wilhelm Röntgen was born on March 27th 1845. He was born at Lennep in Rhenish Prussia. However when he was young, the family moved to the Netherlands (his mother was from Amsterdam) and he received his education at a boarding school in Utrecht. However, he was expelled from this school and banned from every other similar type of school in the Netherlands. Not having the qualifications to get to a university in either the Netherlands or Germany, Röntgen found out that he could apply to join a college in Zurich if he passed its entrance exams. Röntgen passed these and began studying mechanical engineering at the Federal Polytechnic Institute. He quickly gained a reputation for his ability and after graduating, Röntgen attended the University of Zurich where he was awarded a Ph.D in 1869. In 1873, Röntgen moved to the University of Strasburg and one year later was appointed a lecturer at the university. For a short time Röntgen worked at the Academy of Agriculture but in 1876 he was appointed Professor of Physics at Strasburg.


Between 1876 and 1900 Röntgen held a number of professorships and departmental chairs. His status in the scientific community was such that in 1900 the Bavarian government requested that he be appointed chair of the physics department at the University of Munich. Plans to move to America were ended by World War One and Röntgen spent the rest of his working life in Munich.


His greatest discovery came on November 8th 1895 when he discovered x-rays. He called the strange rays he had found ‘x’ because it was the mathematical symbol for ‘unknown’. Many people and books honoured him by calling them Röntgen Rays but he preferred x-rays and ultimately the term stuck. The x-ray images of his wife Anna’s hand, complete with wedding ring, became famous throughout the scientific world and his discovery was greeted with much enthusiasm.


Ironically Röntgen delayed publishing his first report on his new discovery, as he feared that his colleagues would mock his findings. The opposite proved to be true. “Within a few weeks his discovery had been greeted all over the world as one of the most important in medical history.” (‘History of Medicine’ by Roberto Margotta)


The University of Würzburg awarded Röntgen an honorary Doctorate in Medicine after his findings were made public as it quickly became clear just how important his discovery was to the world of medicine. 


In 1901 Röntgen was awarded the very first Nobel Prize for Physics. His citation referred to his discovery as the “remarkable rays”. Röntgen refused to patent his discovery and gave the money that came with the Nobel Prize to his university.


Wilhelm Röntgen died on February 10th 1923.


His will stated that all his scientific correspondence should be destroyed after his death and this was duly carried out.


In 2004 an element was named in his honour.