Birthday: March 27, 1845
Died At Age: 77
Sun Sign: Aries
Also Known As: Wilhelm Conrad Röntgen
Born in: Lennep, Rhine Province, Germany
Famous as: Winner of First Nobel Prize in Physics
Spouse/Ex-: Anna Bertha Ludwig
children: Josephine Bertha Ludwig
Died on: February 10, 1923
place of death: Munich, Germany
discoveries/inventions: Discovered X-Rays
education: University of Zurich (1869), Institute of Martinus Herman van Doorn, ETH Zurich
awards: 1901 - Nobel Prize in Physics
1897 - Elliott Cresson Medal
1896 - Matteucci Medal
1896 - Rumford Medal
Wilhelm Rontgen was an eminent German physicist who won the first Nobel Prize in Physics, for the discovery of X-rays. Though many scientists had detected the X-rays even before Rontgen, he was the first person who discovered and systematically studied the X-rays. Born into a family of cloth merchants, he was neither brilliant nor an attentive student in his childhood; rather he was keenly interested in nature during his younger years. After being expelled from the school, he became an irregular student and it was only after he came under the guidance of Professor Kundt, he discovered his defining passion and true talent. He served as a professor of physics at many universities before discovering the Rontgen rays which later became known as “X-rays”. Apart from it, he also conducted researches in various other branches of physics including elasticity, capillarity, conduction of heat in crystals, the absorption of heat-rays by different gases, piezoelectricity and the electromagnetic rotation of polarized light. A multifaceted genius, his greatest gift to mankind is considered to be the discovery of the X-rays which also earned him the first ever ‘Nobel Prize in Physics’. Through his discovery, he revolutionized the entire medical profession and set the foundation for diagnostic radiology. Today, he is considered the father of diagnostic radiology, the medical field which uses imaging to diagnose disease.
Childhood & Early Life
He was born on March 27, 1845, in Lennep, Germany to Friedrich Conrad Roentgen, a textile merchant and his wife, Charlotte Constanze Frowein. He was their only child.
He received his primary and secondary education in the public schools of Apeldoorn and at a private boarding school in Middelann.
In 1862, he was enrolled at the Utrecht Technical School but was expelled after some time on account of a childish mischief which involved drawing a caricature of an unpopular teacher of the school.
In 1865, he was authorized to attend the University of Utrecht but as an irregular student. Despite the fact that he took classes on various subjects including analysis, physics and chemistry, he did not seem to focus towards becoming a regular student.
When it came to his knowledge that he could be admitted to the Federal Polytechnic Institute in Zurich, he instantly applied for it and passed its examinations. Thus, he began studying mechanical engineering and received his diploma in 1868.
After graduating, he attended the University of Zurich and obtained his Ph.D. in physics in 1869. In the university, he became a favorite student of Professor August Kundt.
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After completing his doctoral degree, he was asked by Kundt to be his assistant and he accepted the post. Next year, he traveled with Kundt to the University of Wurzburg and afterwards to the University of Strassburg where Kundt served as a lecturer.
In 1874, he received his first official academic appointment when he became a privatdozent at the University of Strassburg. Next year, he was appointed a professor of physics at the Hohenheim Agricultural Academy.
In 1876, he returned to the University of Strassburg as an associate professor of physics. In 1879, he was appointed to the chair of physics at the University of Giessen, a post he served until 1888. In 1888, he returned to the University of Wurzburg to take a joint appointment as professor of physics. He made the discovery of the Roentgen rays during his professorship at the Wurzburg University. He published a total of three papers on X-rays between 1895 and 1897.
In 1900, he was appointed at the physics chair at the University of Munich, by the special request of the Bavarian government. He served in Munich for the rest of his career until his retirement in 1920.
His most significant work is, undoubtedly, the discovery of X-rays, a form of electromagnetic radiations which are emitted when matter is bombarded with fast electrons. While conducting an experiment on cathode rays, electric current was passed through gases at extremely low pressure through a well-covered discharge tube, and he observed an illumination of barium platinocyanide covered screen, placed near the apparatus. He also discovered that the rays were capable of exposing a photographic plate and through this knowledge, he developed the image of his wife's hand and analyzed the variable transparency as showed by her bones, flesh and her wedding ring. Subsequently, he named it ‘X-rays’ and stated that they are produced by the impact of cathode rays on material objects.
Awards & Achievements
In 1896, he was awarded the Rumford Medal and Matteucci Medal along with Philipp Lenard. They received it for their investigations of the phenomena produced outside a highly exhausted tube through which an electrical discharge was taking place.
In 1897, he received the ‘Elliott Cresson Medal’ for his discovery of X-rays.
In 1900, he was honored with the ‘Barnard Medal’ of Columbia University.
In 1901, he became the first person to be awarded the Nobel Prize in Physics in recognition of the extraordinary services he rendered by the discovery of the remarkable rays, subsequently named after him, Roentgen rays or X-rays.
In 1919, he became the recipient of prestigious ‘Helmholtz Medal’.
In 2004, IUPAC named element number 111 ‘Roentgenium (Rg)’ in his honor.
Personal Life & Legacy
In 1872, he married Anna Bertha Ludwig, whom he met in Zurich; she was the daughter of a German revolutionary who had emigrated to Switzerland. They had no children of their own. In 1887, they adopted Anna’s six-year old niece, Josephine Bertha Ludwig.
He died on February 10, 1923 in Munich, Germany due to carcinoma of the intestine. His remains were buried in Alter Friedhof, Giessen, Germany. In keeping with his will, all his personal and scientific correspondence was destroyed upon his death.