The history corner: Anna Bertha Ludwig

Wife of Wilhelm Conrad Roentgen, the discoverer of X-rays, she was the first person to experience the X-ray on her body on December 22, 1895.

Scientific literature does not usually pay too much attention to Roentgen’s spouse, who offered her left hand to make the X-ray in which one can see some metacarpals and bones of the hand and fingers, including a ring. She initiated medical radiology and the diagnostic imaging techniques, which have greatly contributed to the development of medicine.

Anna was born in Zurich (Switzerland) on April 22, 1839, and died in Munich (Germany) on October 31, 1919, after 47 years of marriage to Roentgen.

Roentgen was born and spent his early childhood in Lennep, a small village located in the West of Germany, as the only son of Friederich Conrad Roentgen, a fabrics wholesaler, and his cousin of Dutch origin, Charlotte Constance Frowein. He moved to the Netherlands when he was three years old, to live with his mother’s relatives and subsequently to Zurich to complete his academic training.

Wilhelm and Anna met in Zurich while Roentgen was working as Assistant to the Professor of physics, Augustus Kundt, who inspired him to devote himself to this discipline.

Anna was a tall, thin, very attractive and charming woman. She was the daughter of Johann Gottfried Ludwig, German, owner of a small Inn or cafe which was very popular among students, called Zum Grünen Glas ('towards the green meadow').

An afternoon of 1866, when Roentgen returned from work, he decided to go for a coffee and there he met Anna. It is said that it was love at first sight.

They engaged in 1869, but dating was not easy; first, because Anna was six years older than Wilhelm, something very rare at the time, and second, because Roentgen’s did not approve the relationship. He had ambitious plans for his only son and felt very disappointed when Wilhelm chose someone of humble origins. They got married on July 7, 1872 in Apeldoor, Netherlands.

Their first years of marriage were quite difficult because Roentgen’s father, in retaliation, removed all financial support to the new family and, as an Assistant, Wilhelm earned very little money. But they were happy together and knew how to cope with adversity.

Roentgen worked long hours on his experiments, both at University and in the lab that he installed in his house. Anna had great affection for her husband and understood that Wilhelm needed space to be able to concentrate, but that did not help her from feeling lonely most of the time. She wished to get pregnant and be surrounded by children but this wish never came true.

In 1887, a tragedy struck Anna’s family: her only brother died leaving little Josephine Bertha Ludwig behind. She was only six years old. Wilhelm and Anna decided to adopt her and so Anna could fulfill her desire of being a mother.

With Anna’s support, Roentgen’s career as a physicist and scholar started to grow, and in 1894 he was elected as the new rector of the University of Würzburg. His teaching and research work, as well as the granting of the first Nobel Prize in Physics in 1901 are well known facts.

Anna allowed the proper work environment that her husband needed and knew how to properly govern her home, adapting herself to the family’s economic possibilities, which were not many (Roentgen, for ethical reasons, never wanted to register any patent related to his discovery; he thought it should be available to humanity for free; he even donated the Nobel prize money - 50,000 Swedish crowns - to support research at the University of Würzburg, which awarded him with the honorary degree of Doctor of Medicine).

Anna had a delicate health and suffered from nephritic cramps. She died at the advanced age of 80 years, almost twenty-five years after his hand had been exposed to radiation. Her husband died almost at the same age of bowel cancer.

This is the story of a woman who, in the background, contributed with everyday and methodical work at Wilhelm Roentgen’s home to one of the greatest discoveries of modern science. In her own right she is part of history, since her left hand was the first radiographic image that was obtained from the human body.

Author: Doctor Luis Ros