Dr. George Alexander Pirie, a pioneer in the application of X-rays, was born on the 19th of August, 1863.
The history of medicine in Scotland is an inspiring story of visionaries and selfless, dedicated people. From the eccentric 18th Century explorer, Mungo Park, through innovative surgeons, such as Joseph, Lord Lister and Sir James Young Simpson, to medical scientists like Sir Alexander Fleming, Scotland has a long list of medical pioneers of whom it is rightly proud. In that pantheon of medical heroes and heroines, none can have made as unselfish a contribution as Dundee’s Dr. George Alexander Pirie.
Dr. George Pirie was a pioneer of the clinical application of X-rays, having started his investigations and experiments at Dundee Royal Infirmary within months of the discovery of the existence of X-rays, a scientific breakthrough that had been achieved in November, 1895, by the German, Wilhelm Conrad Roentgen. Physicians and surgeons were quick to realise the potential of X-rays and by the end of 1896, the infirmaries of Glasgow, Edinburgh, Aberdeen and Dundee were all developing its clinical use. Based at Dundee, Dr. Pirie was one of the first doctors in the world to use X-rays in the field of medicine, obtaining very clear X-ray images in early 1896. Pirie continued his experiments right up until 1925, but the tragic reward for his dedication came when he was forced to retire due to ill-health, brought about by prolonged exposure to X-ray radiation.
In those early days, a cryptoscope (or fluoroscope) was used to test the quality of X-rays. Investigators such as Pirie used to hold a hand between the X-ray tube and the fluorescent screen on the cryptoscope to check how sharp and clear the image was. Unfortunately, a price had to be paid and Dr. Pirie was no exception. In 1905, after 10 years of almost daily exposure to primitive X-rays, Pirie’s eyesight started to fail and he began to develop the characteristic tumours in his hands. Intriguingly, when his hands “began to give me trouble” as he called it, Pirie used mustard oil to try to relieve the pain caused by his experiments. With wry humour, he described the skin on his hands having “cracked open” and the “amusement” of his colleagues when they saw him “going about with sticking plaster all over [his hands].”
The darker truth of his plight comes across rather more poignantly, when he wrote, “Sometimes I would waken at night and find [my hands] tingling like fire.” Pirie was urged to give up his X-ray work and restrict his activities to superintending others, but he steadfastly refused, stating, “I could never bring myself to cause others to take a risk that I would not take myself.” Once the danger of exposure to X-rays was realised, early forms of protection included a lead-lined mask with glass goggles.
Unfortunately, such innovations came too late for Pirie, who, by the time he was forced to retire, had lost one eye and most of the sight from his other. Pirie’s personal agony didn’t stop there as he had also lost his right hand and the thumb and part of the fifth finger of his other hand when he was told that “nothing could be done” and he was forced to endure the amputation of his left. Speaking of his infirmities, he was to say, “I like to draw a veil over those days.” Pirie’s left hand is preserved in the Pathology department at Ninewells Hospital & Medical School in Dundee.
George Alexander Pirie was born in Dundee on the 19th of August, 1863. Around 1883, Pirie graduated with an M.A. from the University of St. Andrews where he also studied Greek classics. It is said that he was a “fluent Greek scholar” – I guess that means he could speak ancient Greek or at least decipher the odd hieroglyph. In 1886, Pirie obtained an MBCM with first class honours, from Edinburgh, and he gained his M.D. in 1890. George Alexander came from a long line of Piries associated with Dundee Royal Infirmary. George Alexander’s father, Dr. George Clark Pirie, was a physician there, from 1862 to 1881, and a cousin, Dr. David Greig, was one of the founders of the Forfarshire Medical Association.
Pirie’s contribution to medical science was duly recognised, but back in 1896, the prevailing public view of X-rays is summed up in a wee extract from the ‘London Pall Mall Gazette’ – “You can see other people’s bones with the naked eye… On the revolting indecency of this there is no need to dwell.” However, in 1926, when he was no longer able to continue working, Pirie was awarded a Civil List pension and presented with a Carnegie Hero Trust medal and pension. The grateful citizens of his home town of Dundee also presented him with an award of £1,120, which was raised by subscription in recognition of his unique services.
Later, in 1936, long after Pirie had died, a memorial was erected in Hamburg, the home of Roentgen, in honour of the pioneers of X-rays, many of whom had suffered injury or even lost their lives due to their ground-breaking experiments. Of the original 169 names from 15 nations inscribed on the memorial, six are from Scotland, including Dr. George Alexander Pirie.
Those other Scottish heroes are William Ironside Bruce, from Aberdeen, William Hope Fowler, John Webster Lowson Spence and Dawson Turner, all from Edinburgh, and James Riddell from Glasgow.
The citation on the Hamburg Memorial to Pirie, and his colleagues and peers from around the world, reads, “They were heroic pioneers for a safe and successful application of X-rays to medicine. The fame of their deeds is immortal.”
George Alexander Pirie died in October, 1929.