Did you know that a girl from the Rocky River community in Cabarrus County, North Carolina was the first person whose life was saved in the United States with the aid of the X-ray? Today’s blog post is an edited version of a local history newspaper column I wrote in 2006 for Harrisburg Horizons, a short-lived weekly newspaper. I usually blog about writing fiction, but this is an example of my nonfiction writing.
Discovery of the X-ray
Just three months after Wilhelm Conrad Roentgen of Bavaria discovered the X-ray, a scientist from Davidson, North Carolina used it in a Rocky River home to help save Ellen Harris’ life. It was a February day in 1896.
Dr. Henry Louis Smith of Davidson read about Roentgen’s discovery of the X-ray. He went to Dr. J.P. Munroe’s laboratory in the small medical school on the campus of Davidson College. The laboratory had the same equipment as that used by Mr. Roentgen.
Dr. Smith fired a bullet into the palm of a corpse’s hand. He then made a successful X-ray of the hand.
Ellen Harris Swallows Thimble
Soon thereafter, Mr. and Mrs. William Edwin Harris’ twelve-year-old daughter, Ellen, swallowed a tailor’s thimble. The open-ended thimble lodged in her throat and made it increasingly difficult for her to breathe or eat over the following days.
Area physicians did not agree on a diagnosis. Three doctors thought she coughed up the thimble and damaged her throat in the process. One doctor speculated that the thimble hurt her throat as it passed to her stomach. Only one of the five doctors consulted thought the thimble was still in Ellen’s throat.
A man in Charlotte, the largest town in the area, told Dr. Smith about Ellen’s predicament. Dr. Smith asked the man to convey to Ellen’s parents his willingness to help them.
Ellen’s frantic father and mother believed that Dr. Smith could help their daughter. Mr. Harris traveled to Davidson in a wagon (a distance of about 30 miles — perhaps more in those days) and brought Dr. Smith and his X-ray equipment to his home near Rocky River Presbyterian Church on Rocky River Road.
Mr. and Mrs. Harris placed Ellen on a sheet fashioned into a hammock. Dr. Smith set up his crude X-ray apparatus. A large and heavy battery and induction coil powered the equipment.
According to a letter that Dr. Smith wrote to Dr. Robert M. Lafferty, he crouched on the floor under the girl. After an hour’s work with a fluoroscope, he got a fleeting glimpse of the thimble in the child’s windpipe. There was no lasting image on film like in X-rays today.
Dr. Smith returned to Davidson and the Harris family set out for a hospital in Charlotte. The doctors there refused to operate on Ellen. They wanted to see exactly where the thimble rested before they made an incision.
The Charlotte surgeons wired Dr. Smith their concerns. Surgery was Ellen’s only hope for survival. Without knowing the exact location of the thimble, though, the surgeons feared they would lose their patient on the operating table.
Dr. Smith immediately brought his X-ray equipment from Davidson to the hospital. Once more, the apparatus pinpointed the location of the thimble in Ellen’s trachea. The image paved the way for the operation.
The surgeons soon discovered that Ellen’s flesh partially grew over the rusting thimble. This made the thimble’s removal difficult and challenging. The arduous two-hour surgery saved Ellen’s life and put the Rocky River community on the medical history map!
Early Medicine in Cabarrus, primary data collected by Eugenia W. Lore and edited by Jane Harris Nierenberg, 1990. (Includes newspaper articles from The Concord Tribune, November 9, 1945, and December 10, 1945.)
Open the Gate and Roam Cabarrus With Us, by Adelaide and Eugenia Lore, 1971.
The Historic Architecture of Cabarrus County, North Carolina, by Peter R. Kaplan, 1981.
Hornets’ Nest: The Story of Charlotte and Mecklenburg County, by LeGette Blythe and Charles R. Brockmann, 1961.
Until my next blog post
I hope you have a good book to read. (I finished Right Behind You, by Lisa Gardner and have started reading Chasing the North Star, by Robert Morgan.) If you are a writer, I hope you have quality writing time.
2 thoughts on “Early X-ray and a Thimble”
This is very interesting read.😊 How fortunate for that little girl and what a resourceful doctor. It almost sounds like a modern day fairytale; only the magic is replaced with science.
This is one of my favorite local history stories. I can’t imagine the agony that little girl suffered until that thimble was removed and her throat was able to heal. Glad you enjoyed reading it.
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