Vintage X-ray machine that survived Nazi Germany


The Pohl Omniskop, an object described as both frightening and fascinating by patients subjected to time inside. Manufactured in Germany in around 1910,
the Pohl Omniskop was designed by Ernst Pohl whilst working as an orthopaedic engineer at
the University of Kiel’s medical department. It was only 20 years before, in 1895,
that Wilhelm Conrad Röntgen discovered X-rays, after successfully taking an X-ray
of his wife Anna’s hand. X-rays very quickly became an important
diagnostic tool, and remain so today. X-rays work by firing a beam of electrons
at a Tungsten element in a vacuum tube – here. This transfers energy to the Tungsten atoms and,
as a result, a photon and an X-ray light wave is emitted. The X-ray is then directed at the patient in the machine and the negative image appears here,
on the plate at the front. The density of the object and its atomic makeup
determine whether the X-rays are absorbed – hence bone shows up white
and tissue shows up as black. What made the Omniskop so unique was that it
enabled doctors to change the centre of gravity by using a system of counterweights. Doctors and radiologists were able to view
patient’s injuries from a variety of different angles and gravitational pressure levels,
enabling a more effective diagnosis. In 1920s Berlin, this Omniskop belonged to
Dr. Ernst Rachwalsky, a specialist in stomach problems. Rachwalsky was a well-known and well-respected Jewish doctor, treating everything from
gallstones to stomach cancers. In 1936, facing increasing persecution from the Nazis,
Rachwalsky and his family fled Germany. But rather than leave his impressive machine behind, Rachwalsky dismantled the Omniskop and
shipped each individual part to England. Upon arrival in England,
he rebuilt the Omniskop and it was used in his London medical
practice until 1962 when he retired. The Omniskop may seem like
an advanced ideal for its time, but it’s important to remember that most patients and doctors received extremely high doses of radiation poisoning. Just two weeks after the announcement
of the discovery of X-rays in 1895, a German dentist, Dr Walkhoff, exposed his face to 25 minutes of X-rays in order to achieve the first dental radiograph. Unfortunately for him,
and many of his later patients, this exposure to radiation
led to hair loss, skin blisters, painful diseases and ultimately death. The ionising nature of X-ray radiation
was not realised until the 1920s. It took until the later years of this decade
to identify safe doses of X-ray radiation. Nowadays, X-ray machines are far less
terrifying or fantastical than the Omniskop. But it’s an intriguing piece of equipment. It’s the forerunner to modern medical diagnosis and the base of much of our current
understanding of the internal workings of the body.

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