Friday 1 February 2013

Pioneering radiology in Edinburgh

This week’s blog focuses on the early years of radiology in Edinburgh.

William Röntgen discovered x-rays on 8 November 1895. By 1898, the ‘Medical Electrical Department’ had opened in the Royal Infirmary of Edinburgh (RIE), housed in a former splints store and plumbers’ workshop, to make use of x-rays to diagnose patients. At this time, the person in charge of the department was called a ‘medical electrician’ and the first person appointed was Robert Murray Milne, assisted by Dawson Turner. Turner took charge from 1901, when Milne became a gynaecologist, and continued in the position until 1911. The Department moved to larger premises in 1904, to the basement of the South East ward block of the Surgical House. By 1920 however, with treatments as well as diagnostics being carried out, the accommodation and equipment became inadequate and a new building was planned. The hazards from short and long-term exposure to radiation had become known during the pioneering decades of work using x-rays, therefore the new building incorporated additional features to ensure the protection of operators and patients. The walls were constructed using concrete slabs containing barium sulphate and coated with barium plaster. The specially designed building opened in 1926 and was partially funded by the Edinburgh branch of the British Red Cross Society. From 1955, specialist radiography work in Edinburgh moved to the Western General Hospital, but the use of radiation in diagnosing and treating disease continues to this day in many hospitals across NHS Lothian.

In common with early users of x-rays, many of the staff of the RIE Medical Electrical Department suffered cancer and injuries due to their work, giving their lives for medical advancement. Dawson Turner eventually lost 3 fingers and an eye from radiation burns he sustained. 
William Law in his x-ray suit

The image shows William Law, one of the first radiographers in Edinburgh, wearing full x-ray protective equipment around 1900. LHSA’s records relating to the Radiology Department include diagnostic reports found within case notes from many different specialisms, plans of the radiology building opened in 1926, inventories of equipment and School of Radiography prospectuses and application forms.

Reference: Calder, J.F., The History of Radiology in Scotland 1896-2000, Dunedin Academic Press, Edinburgh, 2001, pp4-5, 35-37


  1. Hello. I know this is an old post, and it's possible no one will see this. I am trying to research Dr Helen Macdougall, an Edinburgh Gold Medallist in 1915, who served in the Scottish Women's Hospitals as an X-Ray specialist. She first went to Serbia with the SWH in December 1914, by which point she was already responsible for X-Rays in her unit, and I'm trying to find out about her possible training in the field. Can you help?

    1. Thank you for your enquiry. Would you be able to contact us at so I can send a full response via email?

      Many thanks,
      Alice Doyle, Access Officer