Auburn’s X-ray Visionary

Thursday, December 23, 2021

Auburn’s X-ray Visionary

In 1892, Anthony Foster McKissick, the first director of Auburn’s first electrical engineering laboratory, helped lay the foundation for Auburn football as the Tigers’ first center. Four years later, he helped do the same for a scientific breakthrough that changed the world.

At first, he almost didn’t believe it himself. 

Brief, tantalizing tales about what Wilhelm Röntgen saw in his Würzburg laboratory on Nov. 8, 1895 began popping up across the Atlantic the first week of January 1896. 

There had been a blurb in the Sunday, Feb. 2 edition of the Atlanta Constitution, and McKissick had laughed. It had to be a mistake, a joke, maybe a misprint or miscalculation. It wasn’t. 

The following Sunday’s edition carried an abridged account of a Harvard professor’s recreation of the newly famous German mechanical engineer’s experiments under the headline: “A Giant Stride in Science: How Objects Are Photographed Through Opaque Bodies – The Cathode Ray.” McKissick read the story. He read it again. It was like something from Jules Verne. He read it to his wife, Margaret. She saw the look in his eyes. So did his students. 

What he couldn’t get out of his mind as he hurried from his home on South Gay Street to the electrical laboratory in the basement of Samford Hall on Monday morning, Feb. 10, were the bones of Frau Röntgen’s hands. The barium platinocyanide screen was said to have actually captured the shadows of the woman’s metacarpals and phalanges, wedding ring and all. 

He looked in the corners of the lab, on top of tables, under tables. He finally found some vacuum tubes just sitting around, waiting for a wizard to fill them with a new form of energy. He settled on one of the pointed four-inch Crookes tubes containing tiny platinum wires, same as Röntgen had reportedly used. That was the easy part. The power was where things would get interesting. 

He told his students that the amount of electricity needed could, were they to link hands, instantly kill half of them. No one flinched. It was going to be a fun week. 

First, they had to get an alternator. Which meant they had to build an alternator. He sent a few students to fetch some cylinders from the electrified cotton mill half a mile away. When they got back, they hoisted an old streetcar motor onto a work table. They cranked 100 volts from the new alternator into the high frequency Tesla induction coil that the class had built that past fall. Suddenly, they were working with 15,000 volts. They sent that bolt of lightning through a spark-gap and a condenser and turned it into a casket-friendly 100,000 volts. McKissick held a five-inch piece of wood to the cylinder. It sizzled. That was enough fun for Monday. 

On Tuesday, it was time. They connected the new alternator to the Crookes tube, stood back, and threw the switch. The wires came alive and filled the tube with a soft, glowing white light that only a handful of Americans had ever beheld. This was it. They looked around the room they now shared with an invisible force that the world was calling X-rays.  

McKissick didn’t know much about photography. But there was a bottle of Rodinol in the lab, and he knew that the box of Seed’s Extra-Rapid Dry Photographic Plates he’d purchased a few years earlier, just in case, had to be around somewhere. He finally found it, reached inside, dusted one off and slipped it into a plate holder. He looked around for a test subject. His eyes settled on a small saw. He put it on top of the photographic plate, then covered it with a thin wooden board. He placed the stack beneath the glowing tube, fingers crossed. They watched and waited. 

After two and a half minutes, they carried the plate to a makeshift dark room.

The outline began to appear almost immediately.  Without a camera, and through solid wood, they had photographed a saw.  

McKissick pinched himself. He was beaming. His students were beaming. The tube was beaming. They shut off the power. McKissick immediately sent one of the boys to the post office to wire Atlanta for fresh plates. Until they arrived, McKissick thought he could borrow some from Mr. Abbott, one of the town’s two photographers. If no one was sitting for a portrait, surely the gentleman could spare some in the name of science. Absolutely, Abbott said. 

On Wednesday, more X-rays likely emanated from the Agricultural and Mechanical College of Alabama than anywhere in the world. 

The original board had been less than an inch. This time, they went denser, heavier. It didn’t matter. 

The outline of the scissors, blade open, was perfectly clear. So was the dollar inside the change purse. 

They put a clasp and a key inside a cardboard box. They removed the plate and grabbed the Rodinol. 

The box had disappeared. The clasp and key remained. It was magic. 

But nothing prepared them for the bones. 

McKissick would have done it himself were there not any takers. But there were plenty. Hands shot into the air. He examined them, looking for the most scientifically interesting. He settled on a boy with a right index finger bent oddly to the left, hoping to capture as many clearly defined twists and turns and abnormalities as he could. Because his mind was already there — surgeries!  Fractures, breaks, bullets! Under the Röntgen rays, in theory, you could locate them instantly. 

He had the boy stand as far back as he could while keeping his hand still on the plate. McKissick flipped the switch. Eight minutes later, he flipped it off. 

In 1892, the 6’0, 210 lb. professor had attempted a handspring after Auburn won the battle of Piedmont Park. That was nothing compared to the giddiness he felt now. 

The negative image was perfect. 

He saw the faint outline of the flesh. He saw the dense darkness of the bones. He heard the reverent silence of the room at the advent of a miracle.

Word traveled fast. It wasn’t his first time to receive regional praise in the press. Four years earlier, his success at using electricity to gin cotton had gotten his name in a few papers. But this was another level. 

A.F. McKissick, the South’s premiere practitioner of the new photography! One of the country’s most experienced Röntgen ray exhibitionists! 

The coverage had started in the Atlanta Constitution and hadn’t stopped. He’d quickly hopped a train with 15 or so of his best plates and dazzled the newsroom with the results of, as the paper called it, “the new light.” They’d given him nearly half a page (complete with illustrations of the plates and even his portrait) under the headline “First X Ray Pictures Brought To Atlanta Yesterday!”

Within a few days of the story, he’d become a regional celebrity, not just a feather in Auburn’s cap — a plume: the captain of the cathode, a name to know and revere, “an Apostle of Science,” the Birmingham News proclaimed.

To celebrate Washington’s Birthday, the Magic City’s school children were instructed to write McKissick’s name on the board next to Prof. Röntgen’s as a tribute to a southerner who was, in the field of science, currently honoring the Father of the Country’s  legacy of leadership perhaps more than any man in America. 

One rival institution was not amused. 

The University of Georgia had done its best to keep up, boasting that X-ray experiments conducted by its professors deserved equal attention from the Atlanta papers. They didn’t get it. McKissick’s name remained the biggest by a mile and, as a result, earned him the biggest toys.

Companies began showering him with gifts and equipment. Voltmeters from Neward. Transformers from South Carolina. Boston-based L.E. Knolt Apparatus Co. delivered the finest Crooke’s tube available, by which McKissick, with only a five-minute exposure, produced perhaps the clearest picture of the inner hand in the world at the time. But what really turned the electrical lab into a revolving door of curiosity seekers was the fabulous fluoroscope from the Edison Manufacturing Company.

Rather than waiting on a static image to develop, the handheld “Edison Glasses” gave operators a fluid, miraculous peek at whatever part of the body they were trained on. 

The medical application of the rays had been obvious from the second McKissick saw inside one of his students, and Edison’s ingenious new apparatus was the quickest way to embrace it. People left his lab rubbing their eyes, shaking their heads, declaring the discovery of the X-ray the greatest of the century. 

McKissick took the show on the road, certain that the surgeons of the south would feel the same. He was feted at medical conventions, business conferences. Fluoroscope in hand, he moonlighted as a miracle worker for the rest of the spring and summer, volunteering his X-ray vision to the public, inviting bullet-ridden strangers to come find salvation under Auburn’s magic light. 

Auburn faculty members pose behind Samford Hall. Electrical engineering professor A.F. McKissick is on the top row, first from the left.

“I see no reason,” McKissick even told the Constitution, “why the light cannot be used to photograph the brain.”

In the meantime, he promised that he could locate foreign objects or fractures inside anyone who could travel to the electrical lab accompanied by a physician. One doctor brought a teenager with a pistol ball somewhere behind his knee cap; McKissick found exactly where in seconds. He did the same for a child crippled after being accidentally shot in the leg. Doctors said the boy would walk again. The possibilities were endless. 

For some, they were too endless. 

That August, the personal peeks into the once hidden inner workings of their anatomy — their spinal columns, their ribs — awed the men crammed inside an Asheville, North Carolina hotel ballroom to repeated, standing ovations. The women, however, remained mostly seated, their arms folded, scandalized by the immodest implications described by the football-playing professor from Auburn, Alabama.

from The War Eagle Reader

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