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Wilhelm Conrad Röntgen

On November 8, 1895, at the University of Würzburg, Wilhelm Röntgen's attention was drawn to a glowing fluorescent screen on a nearby table. Röntgen immediately determined that the fluorescence was caused by invisible rays originating from the partially evacuated glass Hittorf-Crookes tube he was using to study cathode rays (i.e., electrons). Surprisingly, these mysterious rays penetrated the opaque black paper wrapped around the tube. Röntgen had discovered X rays, a momentous event that instantly revolutionized the field of physics and medicine. However, prior to his first formal correspondence to the University Physical-Medical Society, Röntgen spent two months thoroughly investigating the properties of X rays. Silvanus Thompson complained that Röntgen left "little for others to do beyond elaborating his work." For his discovery, Röntgen received the first Nobel Prize in physics in 1901. When later asked what his thoughts were at the moment of his discovery, he replied "I didn't think, I investigated." It was the crowning achievement in a career beset by more than its share of difficulties. As a student in Holland, Röntgen was expelled from the Utrecht Technical School for a prank committed by another student. Even after receiving a doctorate, his lack of a diploma initially prevented him from obtaining a position at the University of Würzburg. He even was accused of having stolen the discovery of X rays by those who failed to observe them. Nevertheless, Röntgen was a brilliant experimentalist who never sought honors or financial profit for his research. He rejected a title (i.e., von Röntgen) that would have provided entry into the German nobility, and donated the money he received from the Nobel Prize to his University. Röntgen did accept the honorary degree of Doctor of Medicine offered to him by the medical faculty of his own University of Würzburg. However, he refused to take out any patents in order that the world could freely benefit from his work. At the time of his death, Röntgen was nearly bankrupt from the inflation that followed WW I.

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