Ireland’s First X-Ray Commemorated

By Sean Ryan

While it has been a matter of discussion for a number of years it is generally accepted that Ireland’s first X-Ray was taken at De La Salle College in Waterford City in 1896.

What is even more remarkable is the man who performed the first X-Ray, Brother Potamian, born Michael Francis O’Reilly in Baileborough in Cavan in September 1846. His parents took him to New York as a very young boy, where he was educated by the de la Salle Brothers and entered their novitiate in 1859. Michael Francis O’Reilly, a lifelong Christian Brother, had an equally lifelong career in Science with special interest in electricity and magnetism, and had an impressive record of papers published in these areas, some reflecting his keen foresight.

After a teaching career, which took him to the US, Canada and latterly Clapham in London Br Potamian gained several qualifications including a Bachelor of Science Degree and a Doctorate of Science all of which had been achieved whilst teaching fulltime.  Br Potamian arrived in Waterford City in 1893 as a professor of Physics. Of special interest to Potamian was that the new College building was furnished with well-equipped science laboratories; he wasted no time, for example, setting up a 60-foot pendulum to illustrate the rotation of the Earth. It was at Waterford that Potamian produced his famous X-ray image at the request of a local doctor whose patient was suffering from a steel splinter in her hand.

Br Potamian explained in an interview ”a local general practitioner, Dr Atkins, who had heard about the “new photography”, asked Potamian to assist him in treating his patient by producing an X-ray image, or radiogram, of the affected area. This was done at De La Salle College, Waterford, in the presence of many of Waterford’s medical practitioners; Dr Atkins’ operation to remove the foreign body from his patient’s hand was successful”.

Commenting on this in 1995, radiologist Professor David J Murnaghan described Potamian as:  a scientist of some standing with a Doctor of Science Degree from London University and with limited means he was a significant contributor to developments in electricity and magnetism. It was thus an extraordinary feat that he carried out one of the earliest diagnostic X-ray examinations at Waterford on April 13th 1896’’.

In August of 1896 the Order saw fit to transfer Potamian back across the Atlantic, to its prestigious Manhattan College in New York, where he would spend the remainder of his career.  Later in 1896 he was appointed Dean of Engineering at Manhattan College, a University College run by his Order. He published a mammoth two-volume, 1000 page, annotated catalogue of the Wheeler Gift to the American Institute of Electrical Engineering, almost 7000 ancient documents on Electricity and Magnetism, mostly in Latin. This led to other works on history. Brother Potamian died in a New York hospital in January 1917.

To commemorate the famous taking of Ireland’s first X-Ray two new blue plaques were unveiled in Waterford city to commemorate where Ireland’s first x-ray happened on April 29th 2022.  Eugene Broderick, Chairperson of the Waterford Civic Trust said ” the trust unveiled the plaques as a measure of the rich history and contribution of De La Salle College to Waterford’’.

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