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Elizabeth Fleischmann-Aschheim Gives Herself Radiation Poisoning

One of the first X-ray photographs, taken by German physicist Wilhelm Roentgen, showing his wife's hand and wedding ring. It wasn't much later that people learned how dangerous prolonged exposure to X-rays could be.

Hulton Archive/Getty Images

When Wilhelm Rontgen discovered the X-ray in 1895, the news swept not just the medical community, but the media as well. That's how 30-year-old Elizabeth Fleischmann-Aschheim learned about the discovery that captivated her imagination. Though she never completed high school, she decided to learn all about radiophotography and became a very skilled radiographer in just a year, thanks to help from her brother-in-law, who was a physician [source: Palmquist].

Fleischmann opened California's very first X-ray laboratory, making her the first radiographer in the state [source: Palmquist]. These accomplishments were no small feat in the late 1800s, especially for a woman.

Fleischmann and her brother-in-law performed many X-ray experiments, sometimes involving hours of radiation exposure [source: Breyer]. But from early on, it was clear that X-ray exposure was dangerous: More than 20 radiologists and X-ray manufacturers had reported severe injuries after repeated or long-term exposure by the end of 1896 [source: Palmquist].

Despite the evidence that radiologists should take safety precautions, Fleischmann refused to wear protective gear, because she was afraid it would scare off her patients. She paid for that stubbornness with her life. In 1905 she died from radiation poisoning when she was only 46 years old [source: Breyer].

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