By Sarah Alger
On display at the Russell Museum is the first X-ray tube to be used at Massachusetts General Hospital. Mounted on a small wooden stand and its interior dulled with soot, its modesty belies the story of its extraordinary owner.
Walter J. Dodd was born in London in 1869 and came to the United States when he was ten. While working as a janitor at a Harvard chemistry lab, he picked up chemistry from preparing class materials and sitting in on lectures, and joined MGH in 1892 as an assistant apothecary. Three years later he became apothecary in chief, a position he would hold for 13 years. He was also the hospital’s photographer, so when Roentgen published in 1895 his paper about the mysterious X ray, it was natural that Dodd would look into this discovery. In 1896 Dodd would make the first X ray at a Boston hospital (the first in America was made at Dartmouth).
His interest and skill burgeoned; he became the in-house expert, treated as a peer by physicians. Ultimately he decided to pursue a medical degree. At first he took classes in Boston, but distracted by his work at MGH, he went north to the University of Vermont. (Can you imagine? Having to escape the state so you can concentrate on medical school.)
You can guess where this story is headed. To test that his X-ray tube was working properly, Dodd would wave his hand in front of it, and even after the dangers of radiation came to light, he continued to do so. The pain in Dodd’s hands became so great that he had to rest them in pans of cocaine solution so he could sleep. Dodd would endure 50 operations to remove bits of his fingers and would eventually succumb to his injuries in 1916.
Why did he persist with his work? Friend and colleague John Macy, who wrote a biography of Dodd, noted: “In his nature cheerfulness and intrepidity merged into recklessness and obstinacy. Though he endured untellable torments, he made light of his sufferings.”
By Macy’s account and others, Dodd’s charm and good cheer are legendary. When I regard his X-ray tube, I choose to think about my favorite anecdote I’ve come across in our archives:
“One day, as the Resident Physician was sitting at his desk in the office by the old Blossom Street entrance of the Bulfinch Building, Walter Dodd came in, looking depressed, and said: ‘I report that I have just been thrown out of the Treadwell Library.’ The Resident Physician asked what the trouble was. Walter replied, ‘I told Mrs. Myers what I thought was a funny story, to the effect that a very pompous alderman, by the name of Hooley, marched down the aisle of the Cathedral one Sunday morning, whereupon the choir began to sing, ‘Hooley, Hooley, Hooley, Lord God Almighty.’ Mrs. Myers said to me, ‘Walter Dodd you get right out of my Library, and don’t you return until you apologize.’”