Today, a woman pioneers X-Rays in the early West.
The University of Houston's College of Engineering
presents this series about the machines that make
our civilization run, and the people whose
ingenuity created them.
Elizabeth Fleischmann was
born in the wild-west town of Placerville,
California, just after the Civil War. Her parents
were Austrian Jewish immigrants. Later, in San
Francisco, the family fell on hard times. She had
to drop out of high school and go to work as a
bookkeeper. Then, when she was 28, Roentgen
invented X rays on the other side of the world.
Roentgen's invention riveted the public's
imagination. Do-it-yourself articles on X-ray
devices reached San Francisco within a year.
Elizabeth Fleischmann reacted with eerie vision.
She somehow managed to set up a complete X-ray
system in an office on Sutter Street the year after
By 1900, Spanish-American War casualties were
reaching San Francisco from the Philippines. They
carried unremoved bullets and shrapnel in their
bodies. Fleischmann was, by then, the best
radiologist on the coast -- maybe best in the
world, as well.
She turned her Roentgen rays on the wounded with an
uncanny spatial sense. She knew just how to
triangulate on bullets lodged in the lungs or skull
and steer surgeons straight to them. She knew just
how to regulate exposures to match tissue
The chief of army medicine in San Francisco sent a
set of her X-rays to the War Department. It was the
best X-ray work the surgeon general had seen, so he
went out to meet this E. Fleischmann who'd made
them. He was astonished when he was presented with
a shy young Jewish woman who violated every canon
of 19th-century ethnic and gender prejudice. He
caught his breath and went on to say she'd done the
finest radiographic work he'd seen.
Of course no one shielded themselves from X-rays.
No one knew how vicious they were. Many early
radiologists subjected patients to serious burns.
Fleischmann was smart enough to avoid doing that,
but no one yet knew about X-ray-induced cancer.
It was normal practice for operators to hold their
own hand in the rays to check exposures. And
Fleischmann was now working long hours, year in and
year out. By January, 1905, that terribly
over-exposed arm had become cancerous and had to be
amputated. She died seven months later. By then,
ironically, she'd started the experimental
treatment of certain cancers with X-rays. And, of
course, such treatment goes on today.
Much of what we know about Fleischmann comes from a
single San Francisco Chronicle article
about her work in 1900 and a 1905 obituary. After
that the sands of history closed over her.
She didn't fit the hero mythology of a century ago.
Since we couldn't incorporate her into that
mythology, we did the only other thing we knew how
to do. We forgot her.
I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston,
where we're interested in the way inventive minds
Palmquist, P.E., Elizabeth Fleischmann:
Pioneer X-Ray Photographer, Berkeley, CA:
Judah L. Magnes Museum, 1990. (In this exhibition
catalog there is a descrepancy as to E.F.'s age.
According to the text she was reported as being 15
years old in the 1880 census, but the article also
says she was 38 years old when she died in 1905. I
am guessing that the secondary report of the census
is somehow incorrect, and I accept the age of 38 at
Fleischmann married Israel Julius Aschheim, grand
secretary of the District No. 4 B'nai B'rith, in
1900. At that time she did something quite unheard
of in 1900. She adopted the hyphenated last name
I am greatful to Margaret Culbertson, UH Art and
Architecture Librarian, for calling Fleischmann to
my attention and providing the Palmquist source.
For more on the new X-rays, see Episode 654.
From the 1895 Century
This X-ray photo appears in an article published in
May of the year following Roentgen's discovery. The
article consists of letters from distinquished
scientists of the day, including one in which
Edison analyses the construction of X-ray
The Engines of Our Ingenuity is
Copyright © 1988-1997 by John H.
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