Clarence Madison Dally: The First Victim of Radiation

Feb 14, 2023 0 comments

In December 1895, German physicist Wilhelm Roentgen submitted to Würzburg's Physical-Medical Society journal a preliminary report where he described the discovery of “a new kind of ray”. This previously undiscovered radiation, which he dubbed X-rays, was capable of penetrating blocks of wood and books a thousand pages thick, and even the flesh in a human hand, casting ghostly shadows of the bones within.

Within weeks the news had spread throughout the world prompting hundreds of discussions in newspapers and journals about the new discovery and its possible use in medical and physical science. It even inspired discussion among occultists. For many who believed in the paranormal, the discovery of these mysterious rays only served to reinforce their belief in the existence of ghosts and the way in which photographic plates could detect realities invisible to the human eye. Even Roentgen’s own wife was horrified when she was shown the X-ray photograph of her hand because it reminded her of her own mortality. She remarked, “I have seen my death.”

Two early workers taking X-rays of their hands with utter disregard for their own safety

Two early workers taking X-rays of their hands with utter disregard for their safety. Photo: William J. Morton

Radiation would claim the lives of hundreds of radiologists and scientists the world over in the coming decades. The possible damaging effects of Roentgen Rays on living tissue was speculated as early as March 1896 by the Italian physicist Angelo Battelli. Concerns were also raised by many other engineers, but the discovery of X-rays threw open so many doors of possibilities that many scientists and workers were willing to sweep aside these concerns in their quest for a novel application of this fascinating breakthrough. One of the first person to discover this the hard way was Clarence Madison Dally.

Dally was born in Woodbridge, New Jersey, in 1865 just as the American Civil War was winding down. His father worked as a glass blower at the Edison Lamp Works in nearby Harrison making glass bulbs for Edison’s burgeoning incandescent lamp industry. When Dally turned 17, he enlisted in the Navy, where he served for six years before he was honorably discharged. Returning home to Woodbridge in 1888, Dally started working with his father and three brothers at the Edison Lamp Works.

Clarence Madison Dally

When Roentgen announced the discovery of X-rays in 1895, Edison quickly recognized the importance of the discovery and saw in it a possible tool to further the improvement of incandescent lamps. Edison was specifically interested in one of Roentgen’s experiments where he coated a glass screen with a layer of barium platinocyanide crystals and allowed X-rays to fall on it. The crystals would glow in the dark when the X-rays hit them. Edison believed that if he could find the right fluorescence material, he could could make the screen glow bright enough to lit an entire room—in other words, a fluorescent lamp.

Edison called young Daily, who had become a proficient craftsmen in the delicate art of glassblowing and already a favorite of his employer, to assist him in this new research in the main Edison laboratory in East Orange, New Jersey. Daily produced thousands of Crookes tubes and experimented with more than a thousand different compounds. Dally personally tested them by holding his left hand between the X-ray source and the fluorescent screen, exposing himself to unhealthy doses of X-rays. Dally eventually discovered that calcium tungstate glowed nearly twelve thousand times more brightly than the barium platinocyanide that Roentgen had used. Edison had found his fluorescent lamp, but it had come at a cost.

Edison discovered that he had trouble focusing with his left eye, which his oculist attributed to the prolonged use of the fluoroscope which used X-rays to excite the fluorescence compound and had an eyehole to peer into. Edison cautioned Dally about the dangers in continuous use of the tubes, but Dally disregarded the warning and only insisted in using the most powerful tubes he could find.

Edison peers into a fluoroscope to observe the X-ray of Clarence Madison Dally’s hand. Photo: Edward P. Thompson/Wellcome Images

Soon, Dally found that his hair was falling out, and his eyebrows and eyelashes too. His face began to wrinkle and his left hand became swollen, sore and extremely painful. “Then arterio sclerosis, or a thickening or hardening of the arteries set in, and this extended even to the most minute blood vessel in his arm,” explained his physician Dr. W.B. Graves. "There was no paralysis, but the drying up of the blood vessels took away the nourishment from the tissue and prevented the sore on his left hand from healing. The right hand was also affected, even to the finger tips, but it was not in such a serious condition as the left.”

Dally did not believe his conditions were either life threatening or permanent. When his left hand started to give him trouble, he began using his right hand instead. At night, he slept with both hands in water to alleviate the burning. Like many researchers at the time, Dally assumed he’d heal with rest and time away from the tubes.

By 1900, the lesions in his hand developed into cancer that began to spread up his arms towards his biceps. After multiple attempts to cure, his left arm was amputated just below the shoulders. Dally also lost four fingers of his right hand, leaving only the thumb. Despite these surgeries, the doctors failed to halt the progression of his carcinoma, and he died four years later, in 1904, from mediastinal cancer.

Dally’s sufferings left Edison with a morbid fear for X-rays. “Don't talk to me about X-rays,” he told a reporter from the New York World. "I am afraid of them. I stopped experimenting with them two years ago, when I came near to losing my eyesight and Dally, my assistant practically lost the use of both of his arms. I am afraid of radium and polonium too, and I don't want to monkey with them.”

Edison subsequently abandoned his research into fluorescent lamps. “I could make the lamp all right, but when I did so I found that it would kill everybody who would use it continuously,” he said.

He continued: “No, I did not want to know anything more about X-rays. In the hands of experienced operators they are a valuable adjunct to surgery, locating as then do objects concealed from view, and making, for instance, the operation for appendicitis almost sure. But they are dangerous, deadly, in the hands of inexperienced, or even in the hands of a man who is using them continuously for experiment.”

# Clarence Dally: an American pioneer,  American Journal of Roentgenology
# Edison Fears Hidden Perils Of The X-rays, New York World
# Clarence Dally — The Man Who Gave Thomas Edison X-Ray Vision, Smithsonian
# On a New Kind of Rays, Nature


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