Radiotherapy in Australia: Pre-1900

The discovery of X-rays by Wilhelm Röntgen in 1895 prompted excitement around the world, including in Australia. The therapeutic application of “Röntgen rays” was explored almost immediately – here are the milestones of those early years in Australia.

Date Milestone
Jan., 1896 Discovery of X-rays reported in Sydney's Daily Telegraph (on Jan. 31), followed by a editorial in the Australian Medical Gazette (on Feb. 20) which describes that announcement as "premature". The authors of the editorial were more excited by the photography of bodily cavities using systems of mirrors (Johnson, 1954).
Apr., 1896 The Superintendent of Telegraphs in Western Australia, William John Hancock, receives X-ray generating equipment from London. The apparatus is demonstrated at the Perth Public Hospital in August; and William Hancock is appointed as Honorary Radiographer at the hospital (Poller, 1975).
May., 1896 A coil and a Crooke's tube "guaranteed to produce x rays" are purchased by Dr. F. J. Clendinnen of Melbourne for £5/13/9 (Graham, 1975).
Early 1986 The professor of physics at the University of Sydney, Prof. Threlfall, is invited to give a lecture on the new rays to the medical profession, and is reported as saying "that no one would ever make a dollar out of it." (Johnson, 1954).
July, 1896 The possible therapeutic (as opposed to the diagnostic) use of X-rays is mentioned in a editorial letter in the Australian Medical Gazette (in July) by C. Louis Gabriel (from Gundagai). He writes "it has occured to me that the chemico-physical action of the Roentgen Rays might be utilised in the treatment of hydatid disease, not as a diagnostic agent, but as a direct therapeutic measure. Possibly the idea is not original, but I have not come across any literature bearing on the subject. I merely make the suggestion so that those to whom the opportunity offers might put the idea into practice." (Johnson, 1954).
Aug., 1896 Dr. Clendinnen writes an article entitled "Notes on the Roentgen Rays", which is read at a meeting of the Medical Society of Victoria and accompanied by a practical demonstration (Johnson, 1954).
Sep., 1896 The Queanbeyan Age (on Sep. 5) reports a "demonstration" of "Rontgen Rays" by Dr. Cleaver Woods where he was able to locate a portion of fishhook within a volunteer's hand. A hospital committee deemed the use of X-rays in cancer treatments as a failure, despite "favourable developments" post-treatment (Johnson, 1954).
Oct., 1896 The treatment of a carcinoma of the larynx by Dr. Woods is reported by the Daily Telegraph (Oct. 4th), though this treatment is abandoned as by November (Bailey et al. 1975). The Daily Telegraph reported on the patient outcome: "the growth being reduced in size and swallowing made easier." (Johnson, 1954). A medical officer speaking at a meeting of the Albury Hospital Committee in November says that "after a thorough test of the Roentgen Rays had been shown to be a complete failure for cancer treatment. For a time patients had shown favourable developments, but the treatment had now been abandoned in all cases." (Johnson, 1954).
Oct., 1896 F. J. Martell of the Ballarat School of Mines treated a women with secondary cancer involving the chest wall (Morgan, 1996). The patient was provided with apparatus at her home and herself exposed the affected parts to the rays 3-5 hours daily.
Feb., 1897 The Australasian Medical Gazette publishes that "it has been found that issues long exposed to (Roentgen Rays') action become very irritated .. this suggests the hope that the long continued action of the transmitted ray may produce in many pathological conditions a salutory stimulation" (Wilson, 1975).
1897 The annual report of Sydney Hospital records the donation of £100 by Dr. H. F. Quaife for the purpose of buying a Roentgen ray apparatus (Bailey et al. 1975). Drs. W. J. Munroe and Hershall H. Harris routinely use the equipment for diseases of the skin, including ringworm of the scalp and keloid scarring. The filtration materials used included felt, paper, leather, aluminium and silver (Bailey et al. 1975). It is suggested by Johnson (1954) that it was probable that unrecorded work had been done in the previous year. By 1911 Harris had treated some 65 ringworm cases, some accompanied by the use of "pastilles of Sabouraud" for dose monitoring (Johnson, 1954).
1898 The First X-ray equipment is installed in the Alfred Hospital, in Melbourne, under the care of the hospital's chloroformist (Graham, 1975).
1899 Sydney Hospital appoints Dr. Harris as Honorary Skiagraphist (skiagraph being an archaic term for a radiograph), becoming the first x-ray specialist in New South Wales (Bailey et al. 1975).
1900 The annual report of the Sydney Hospital states that "Advantage too has been taken of the therapeutic use of the Roentgen Rays and patients daily attend the department to have the rays applied for this purpose and so far the treatment has been successful and there is every indication that during the next year or two a very wide field will be opened up in connection with this branch of Science." (Johnson, 1954).


  • Bailey MM, Chambers JMS and Manny ML, 1975. Down the maze: Radiotherapy in New South Wales, The Radiographer 46: 8-11.
  • Graham R, 1975. Then to now: Radiotherapy in Victoria, The Radiographer 46: 12-15.
  • Johnson A, 1954. A note on the early use of radiotherapy in skin diseases in Australia, Australian Journal of Dermatology 2(3): 149-152.
  • Poller J, 1975. Radiotherapy in Western Australia 1902-1974, The Radiographer 46: 24-25.
  • Wilson M, 1975. Radiotherapy in Tasmania: A tale of two cities, The Radiographer 46: 16-20.