This post will read like a basic history of medicine post, but it actually presents an ethical question with which I am wrestling. Thus, comments from the peanut gallery are especially desired.
In April of 1896, Henry D. Chapin, a pediatrician at the famed New York Post-Graduate Hospital, contacted his friend and colleague, William J. Morton.
Morton was a prominent neurologist and electro-therapeutist in New York City, and he hailed from a prominent therapeutic family: his father, William T.G. Morton, was the co-discoverer of anesthesia in 1847.
Morton had been experimenting with galvanism and faradism for some time prior to the introduction of the X-ray, and by virtue of his work, he enjoyed a professional relationship with Thomas Edison, who, by 1896, had reached nearly the height of his fame. We have evidence that Edison began experimenting with X-rays within hours of the news of Röentgen’s discovery being cabled across the Atlantic. Telegrams establish that Edison invited Morton to some of the earliest X-ray experiments he conducted in his laboratory, in late December 1895 and early January 1896.
Morton was very busy with X-rays during the “X-ray fever” of 1896, but in this post I want to focus on what Morton and Chapin were occupied with in April of that year. On March 17, a six-week-old infant identified only as “William J” was admitted to the Babies Ward of the Post-Graduate Hospital.* According to Chapin and Morton,
He presented a typical clinical picture of a condition very often seen in infants’ hospitals and dispensaries, due to bad food and air, and popularly known as marasmus or atrophy. The mother was unmarried, without means, and had fed the baby since birth on canned, condensed milk.
In spite of careful nursing and feeding, the infant was unable to assimilate its nourishment properly, and died on April 9th. It occurred to me that this would be a good case to test the transmissibility of the Röntgen rays, and accordingly I requested Dr. William J. Morton to undertake the experiment.
There is, of course, much that could be said about these two passages alone. The description of William’s mother is obviously moralized and gendered, with pejorative implications on her marital status, her socioeconomic position, and her choices on how to care for her baby given the constraints that she likely faced. All of these issues are hugely important — likely more important than what I want to say here — and are fortunately well-plumbed by brilliant historians of women and reproductive health.
What I am interested in here is the fact that Morton managed to produce a X-ray image of William J.’s dead body. Here is how Morton described the process:
The Crookes’s tube was placed at a distance of fourteen inches above the child and in a vertical line above the epigastric region. The sensitive plate was inclosed within a cardboard box. Probably less than forty minutes actual time was consumed in affecting the plate. With the excitation of tubes now at command, fifteen minutes would suffice to produce the result shown. Since the bones of a child of this age are so freely penetrated and traversed by the X ray, the contrast between flesh and bones is not so marked as in the case of adults. In relation to showing the situation of organs, this is largely a matter of the time of exposure. An under-exposure shows the organs in silhouette, while with a longer exposure the rays soon penetrate the plate and obliterate the record. The picture here reproduced was timed to show the skeletal bones only, and therefore does not do full justice to the possibilities of location of other internal parts.
Although it is difficult to be certain, it is quite possible that the resulting image, published in the New York Medical Record of April 25, 1896, is the first successful X-ray of such a young infant (whether alive or dead). The image itself is quite impressive, certainly by the standards of the time (X-rays often required long exposure times and were often unsuccessful in these early days).
I am writing about this as Chapter 7 in my monograph project on the history of the X-ray, tentatively entitled, “Truth, Objectivity, and Sight: An Intellectual History of the X-Ray in the U.S. 1896-1945.” Here is my question:
Should I include the image in the book?
This is not a copyright question. The image appears in a text written prior to 1911, and under US intellectual property law, is therefore in the public domain. I am legally permitted to reproduce the image for any purpose that I see fit, as are you, dear reader. This is an ethical question. What do I owe William J.? What do I owe his mother?
William J lived a short life, but he lived a life. His life has worth not simply because I and others like me can reproduce a X-ray image of his dead body. His life is not fodder for my work. How do I bear witness to his life? What are my obligations towards William J.?
I’ve blogged before on the ethics of memory, arguing that how we remember Mary Mallon, and how we speak of her, has significant ethical content. I am unsure how this is any different with regard to William J. The image is both evocative and historically significant in the annals of scientific imaging. A scholarly book on the history of scientific imaging should obviously include many examples of such images, although that does not itself require I use this particular one.
Ultimately, I keep returning to the idea that the reasons for wanting to include the image of William J.’s dead body are mostly selfish. While it would enrich the text and be useful for showing the reader the point I am trying to flesh out in the chapter, it’s use is really more about my hopes and aims for the chapter and the book. I cannot say that doing so is really about centering William J. and of honoring his short life.
So, I am leaning against including the image.
I really welcome your guidance on this one. Feel free to comment or email. Thanks in advance.
*Henry D. Chapin & William J. Morton, “A Röntgen Picture of a Marasmic Infant,” New York Medical Record 63 (1896): 540-542.