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A Brief History of Medical Imaging

Posted on: March 05, 2019

Imaging Intext

You may be asking yourself, what is medical imaging?

Medical imaging is a new way to describe an old, but continually evolving and exciting industry. You may be more familiar with the terms radiology department or X-ray department. In general terms, medical imaging is the process of visualizing the body’s parts and organs in order for physicians to diagnose, treat and monitor disease and/or injury. In the beginning, there was just the good old X-ray.

Today, there are many modalities that fit under the umbrella of medical imaging. Besides diagnostic X-rays, there is angiography, computed tomography (CT), mammography, nuclear medicine, PET, magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) and ultrasound, also known as sonography. All of these modalities use some type of ionizing radiation, except MRI and ultrasound. This was one of the reasons the industry moved away from the term “radiology” to the new modern description of “medical imaging”.

2019 marks the 124th year since the discovery of X-rays. X-rays were first discovered in 1895 by Wilhelm Conrad Roentgen (1845-1923) who was a professor at Wuerzburg University in Germany. One day, while working with a cathode-ray tube in his laboratory, Roentgen observed a fluorescent glow of crystals on a table near his tube. The rest, as they say, is history.

Every year during the week of November 8, which is the day in 1895 that Roentgen made his discovery, this milestone is remembered by thousands of technologists, radiologists, and radiology-support service employees celebrating National Radiological Technology Week. Founded by the American Society of Radiologic Technologists (ASRT), this celebratory week supports contributions to the medical and healthcare professions.

Since that November day in 1895, we have advanced immensely to where we are now. Let’s take a look at the history and evolution of today’s medical imaging modalities:

In the 1920s, as the X-ray beam became more powerful, scientists were able to use it to produce a continuous X-ray image, thus fluoroscopy was born. A fluoroscopy exam can be described as an X-ray movie, but without the popcorn. In the 1940s, X-ray tomography, or the ability to produce image slices without the over or underlying tissues being seen was introduced. This was the forerunner to today’s CT and MRI images. In the 1950’s we saw the advent of angiography, which is the imaging of blood vessels, and nuclear medicine. Nuclear medicine is a procedure where the patient is injected with a radioactive tracer that is designed to go to a specific body part. 1955 was the first time that ultrasound was used for medical diagnosis, initially used in obstetrics and gynecology practices.

There were great advances in technology in the 1970’s. The concept of the CT scanner was first conceived in 1967, with the first human scan being done in 1971. 1973 saw the introduction of the MRI scanner, with the first patient scan in 1977 - catalyzing an increase in installations of MRI units in hospitals by the early 1980s. In 1974, there was the introduction of the PET scanner, no, not to image your cats and dogs. Positron emission tomography, or PET, imaging uses the same concept as nuclear medicine. Patients are injected with a special radioactive tracer designed to image metabolic processes in the body.

The world of medical imaging has certainly come a long way since the inception of the simple X-ray, and it continues to play a vital role in today’s healthcare. It has a major role in the ability of physicians to properly diagnose and treat their patients, and is an ever-advancing and developing industry. Medical imaging has a wide array of procedures and technologies which continually require technologists with the proper knowledge and skills to perform these diagnostic procedures. There has never been a better time to consider a career in the medical imaging world!

Want to learn more about medical imaging opportunities? Contact our team today!

Susan J. Kelly, BS, CNMT
About Susan J. Kelly, BS, CNMT

Susan has been a certified nuclear medicine technologist since 1985, after receiving her Bachelors of Science in Biology, with a Concentration in Nuclear Medicine Technology from Worcester State University. She began her career as a nuclear medicine technologist at Massachusetts General Hospital, and after 15 years shifted to the world of management. Susan is currently the Chief Technologist at New England PET Imaging System, providing PET/CT services in the Merrimack Valley area and southern New Hampshire.