The Ukrainian Inventor of the X-Ray

  • The Ukrainian Inventor of the X-Ray
  • The Ukrainian Inventor of the X-Ray
  • The Ukrainian Inventor of the X-Ray
Issue 83, October 2015.

The Ukrainian Inventor of the X-Ray

When people speak about the origins of the x-ray, one man’s name usually comes to mind – German scientist Wilhelm Roentgen. Roentgen, of course, was the winner of the very first Nobel Prize for Physics for his work on the x-ray and has even had a periodic element named after him (Roentgenium – 111). What most are unaware of, however, is the contribution of Ukrainian physicist Ivan Puluj in the foundational discovery. In fact, it could be argued that Puluj himself was the original inventor of the groundbreaking medical technology.

“World history has never been just to certain individuals or certain nations. Small nations and their achievements are often neglected while the accomplishments of large nations are at times exaggerated.”

– Slavko Bokshan, Serbian scientist that worked with both Roentgen and Puluj

Ivan Puluj was a Ukrainian physicist, inventor, and patriot that was raised and educated in the village of Hrymayliv near Ternopil. His accomplishments – especially in the development of the x-ray – have been recognized throughout Ukraine, if not the rest of the world. Streets in Lviv, Kyiv, and many other Ukrainian cities have been named after him, as has the Ivan Puluj National Technical University in Ternopil. This month, on the 170th anniversary of the birth of one of Ukraine’s most prominent scientists, Lviv Today looks at the life and accomplishments of Ivan Puluj.

Puluj the Intellectual

Ivan Pavlovich Puluj was born into a wealthy, well-educated, and deeply religious family in Austro-Hungarian Ukraine in February 1845. His father, in fact, even served as the town’s burgomaster (mayor) from 1861-1865. Ivan graduated with honours from the Ternopil gymnasium in 1864 and began his post-secondary education in theology/philosophy at the prestigious Vienna University. He continued his academic work in investigating physical processes and phenomena and was awarded an Associate Professor Degree in Vienna. He spent over 30 years (until 1916) working as a Professor at the German Prague Polytechnic University, including stints as Rector and Dean of the Physical Faculty. But it was his contributions to the scientific community that earned him renown.

The True Inventor of the X-Ray?

Puluj focused much of his academic study on cathode rays, and published several papers on the topic starting from as early as 1880. The field of physics was an exciting place at that time and Puluj worked together with Roentgen in the same department at Strasbourg University under the guideance of the influential Professor Kundt.   By this time, Puluj had already developed a series of experiments into the nature of “cold light”, including inventing an x-ray emitting device known as the Puluj Lamp to conduct those trials. Developed as early as 1881, this invention was the first foray into the groundbreaking world of x-rays and ended up being mass produced at the time. In fact, Roentgen was a frequent visitor to Puluj’s lectures and was even given a Puluj Lamp from Ivan Pavlovich himself. Indeed, it was Ivan Puluj who first demonstrated an x-ray photograph when he took a picture of his daughter’s hand with a pin lying under it. It wasn’t until a few years later that Roentgen would publicly repeat the same experiments and he would not, unfortunately, give the Ukrainian physicist any credit.

By January 1896, both scientists would publish influential articles in the scientific journal World Illustration; Roentgen’s dealt with his ‘discovery’ of x-rays, while Puluj’s outlined a series of x-ray experiments he performed at the Prague Polytechnic Institute. Why then would Roentgen go on to get credit for the discovery of the x-ray? Puluj’s article (Luminous Electrical Matter and the Fourth State of Matter) was, at the time, not given widespread acceptance as it was deemed to have been written in an antiquated academic format. Puluj had even published his discoveries years earlier (1880-1883) in the Notes section of the Austrian Imperial Academy of Sciences. However, these weren’t given their due recognition of their influence on the discovery of the x-ray until years later when they were translated by the Great Britain Royal Society and recognized as one of the greatest achievements in the modern world of science. Even though Puluj was the first to understand, publish, and conduct experiments on the x-ray, it was Roentgen that would receive the credit and – in a controversial move at the time – the first ever Nobel Prize for Physics (1901).

Puluj: Professor, Patron, and True Patriot

Puluj is notable for several other important reasons, including discoveries, inventions, and contributions to Ukraine. He is particularly noteworthy for the invention of a device that determines the mechanical equivalent of heat that he first exhibited at the Exposition Universelle in Paris in 1878. Even though his scientific notoriety usually kept him busy in what is now Central Europe – he frequently lectured at universities and participated in opening power plants throughout the Austro-Hungarian Empire – his true love was Ukraine. He actively supported the opening of a Ukrainian university in Lviv and frequently published articles to support the Ukrainian language. He is famous for his activities towards protecting the rights and political freedoms of the Ukrainian people through his incredible organizational, cultural, and educational work. He created a scholarship fund for Ukrainian students to study abroad, supported Ukrainian refugees over the course of World War I, and even helped complete a translation of the bible into Ukrainian.

This groundbreaking scientist, wonderful humanitarian, and true Ukrainian patriot died in 1918 in Prague and is still buried there. Only recently have his contributions to the discovery of the x-ray become more accepted internationally. This rise in popularity brings to mind the words of one of his colleagues, Ukrainian writer Panteleymon Kulish: “Not only Ukraine, but the whole world, will shortly talk about the man who enlightened science and spirituality with reason.” His inventions and scientific study are a great legacy to world science.  Ivan Puluj now rightfully takes his place among the list of outstanding figures of Ukrainian culture. To commemorate the 170th anniversary of Puluj’s birthday, events will be staged across Ukraine. His homes of Hrymayliv and Ternopil, as well as Kyiv and right here in Lviv, are all set to host special events. While the international community has still to recognize his contributions to the development of one of medical science’s most important tools, Ukrainians know just how integral one of their own was to this groundbreaking achievement.