Reported in Scientific American, This Week in World War I: January 30, 1915

Field medicine arrives in the 20th century: a Panhard-Levassor van with equipment from the Paris firm of Gaiffe provided X-rays during the French army's 1904 maneuvers. Image: Scientific American Supplement, January 30, 1915

X-rays were used for medical operations within a couple of months after they were discovered by Wilhelm Roentgen in late 1895. Their usefulness was also quickly recognized by military surgeons: suddenly it became easy to find broken bones, bullets and chunks of shrapnel in wounded soldiers. During the next few years “Roentgen rays” helped diagnose injuries to troops in the Greco-Turkish War, the Russo-Japanese War, and the Balkan Wars. Mobile units were developed to keep up with field hospitals: if surgery could be performed, X-rays became vital. The two units showed here were developed for army use: a motorized version for the French army developed in 1904, and a horse-drawn version (with its own motor for electricity supply) for field use by the German army. Here is the description of the use and limitations of mobile X-ray units by Surgeon-Major Dr. Strauss, head of a Roentgen laboratory for the German army:

Horse-drawn X-ray cart used by the German army, 1915: the interior of the cart. One of the biggest problems for X-ray use was a suitable electricity supply. These units generated their own electricity. J, inductor; K, cable ; M, motor ; R, case for the X-ray tube (the Crookes tube); Rf, reflector; S, switchboard ; W, contact-breaker. Image: Scientific American Supplement, January 30, 1915

“The Roentgen process is only applicable when it is possible to take definite medical measures. To send the military Roentgen wagon to the spot where first aid is given to the wounded, or to the field hospital , which is often moved five or six times, would be nonsense. All demands that this should be done come from those who neither understand military conditions nor the Roentgen process. Examinations with the Roentgen rays can only be made where quiet and settled conditions prevail. Anything so costly to procure as a field Roentgen outfit should not fall into the hands of the enemy or be destroyed when troops are obliged to fall back. It should also be remembered that the use of the Roentgen rays is a very precise process, and that rough work in the open air without the equipment for a dark room, etc., cannot be thought of. Consequently, these outfits are distributed among the military hospitals. There, where there is quiet and security, the Roentgen process accomplishes positive results.”

Our full archive of the war, called Scientific American Chronicles: World War I, has many articles from 1914–1918, including a number on wartime medicine. It is available for purchase at