How Three College Kids Illegally Captured the Nation's First X-Ray Photograph

On the evening of January 12, 1896, three Davidson College juniors bribed a janitor and sneaked into a physics laboratory, carrying with them a cadaver's finger and other strange items. They didn't realize that they were about to make history.

Dr. Henry Louis Smith, the students' physics professor, had just caught wind of the discovery of x-rays by German physicist Wilhelm Conrad Roentgen. Smith realized that his lab had the equipment necessary to reproduce Roentgen's experiments and eagerly planned on doing so. But three of his inquisitive pupils beat him to the punch.

On January 12, 1896, 115 years ago to the day, Oben Hardin, Pender Porter, and Osmond L. Barringer collected up various small objects—"a cadaver finger (taken from the North Carolina Medical College) stuck with two pins and wearing a ring (borrowed from Barringer's girlfriend); a rubber covered magnifying glass; a pill box containing two 22 cartridges, one pin, two rings, and six Strychnine pills (commonly used by students at that time to stay awake during finals); and an egg that been emptied and had a button placed inside," according to the Davidson Encyclopedia—and made their way to campus. After paying off a janitor and gaining access to the lab, they spent three hours exposing the objects to the x-ray, producing the image seen above. It's thought to be one of the very first, if not the first, x-ray photographs produced in America.

The students kept their extracurricular work a secret fearing punishment. "We kept our picture and escapade a secret and it was not until later that we realized we were making history for the college instead of just breaking the rules," Barringer explained some years later.

Dr. Smith took up his own x-ray work, as planned, and before long was able to use the new imaging technology to help doctors at a local hospital. Later in 1896, Smith used his x-ray machine to locate a needle stuck in a man's knee, facilitating its surgical removal—the first documented use of an x-ray in a medical procedure in the United States.

Dr. Henry Louis Smith eventually was named president of Davidson College, and he is indisputably a pioneer in a medical technology upon which we rely today. But the distinction of creating the first x-ray photograph will forever belong to his mischievous students. [Davidson Encyclopedia and Davidson Physics]