The First X-Rays at SU (late 1800s)

by Neil Thomas

The world was changed forever when the X-ray was invented. On November 8th 1895 a German scientist named Wilhelm Rontgen announced his accidental discovery of the X-ray.[1] With this discovery he learned how the X-ray could take pictures and see

through the less dense tissues such as muscle, skin, and fat. This life saving technology was a monumental discovery but the dispersion of this technology through the state of Texas we can thank Southwestern’s very own Robert Stuart Hyer.

X-ray technology was certainly a monumental leap for the scientific world. Many people who have been positively affected by this technology today have very little knowledge of where it all began. The X-ray was discovered by accident by a german scientist named Wilhelm Rontgen.[2] This scientist was working with cathode tubes,

which later became known for their use with televisions, computers and other scanning


systems.[3] While working with cathode ray tubes Wilhelm Rontgen happened to notice that these tubes could photograph through objects, and stumbled upon the discovery of the X-ray.[4]4 With a little help from his wife, he was able to take a picture of her hand.

This picture showed only her bones and her wedding ring in the picture; with that picture he knew had stumbled upon something big, and worked in secret for roughly six more

weeks.[5] Wilhelm Rontgen officially announced this discovery on the eighth of November in 1895.[6] Immediately after that announcement this discovery took the world by storm and that gave birth to the X-ray.

This technology is one that has impacted almost everyone in some way or another. One could even argue that the X-ray has been one of the most beneficial pieces of medical technology. The ability to see ailments and foreign objects beneath the surface of a human or animal is one piece of technology that has saved many lives, and will save many more to come. Despite our reliance on this groundbreaking technology many students and faculty of Southwestern University may not realize the impact their school has had on this incredible technology. Southwestern University enabled this device to flourish in central Texas when they employed a young professor named Robert Hyer.

Robert Hyer was born in Oxford, Georgia in 1860.[7] When he graduated from


highschool he attended Emory College where he earned his A.B. degree with first honors in 1881 and earned his M.A. the following year.[8] Immediately upon graduating

from Emory University he began traveling to Georgetown, Texas to begin working at Southwestern University.[9] Robert Hyer began his teaching career at Southwestern

University in 1882 and continued to teach through his regency until he left in 1911.[10] His main subject was physics and his outstanding performance as a teacher and his incredible reputation for his intelligence had gotten him chosen to be the university's regent.[11] He was initially reluctant to assume the position as school regent and this

caused him to deny the first offer when he was unknowingly voted as regent.[12] Robert


Hyer insisted on continuing his career as a researcher and teacher but the need for a leader to put Southwestern on the right path caused him to eventually accept the position and serve as the school regent from 1897-1911.[13]

Robert Hyer was well known throughout Georgetown for his excellent research and also his exceptional abilities as a handyman. These Handyman abilities would come to help with his research with the X-ray, but they were first demonstrated through other interesting acts. Robert Hyer’s house was one of the few houses in all of Georgetown to have indoor plumbing and indoor plumbing because Robert Hyer was able to install it by himself.[14] Robert Hyer had mechanical knowledge that he enjoyed

applying in order to help the people around him.


Robert Hyer also used this knowledge in a way to help out Southwestern University in many ways. One of the first ways he made a large mechanical contribution was with the early installation of a steam heating system in the main building.[15] This

installation was intended to be completed by an engineer but Robert Hyer could easily recognize crucial mistakes being made and he took over the operation.[16] Robert’s

immediate recognition and understanding of mechanical operations was a talent that would continue to help Robert make a significant impact on Southwestern and even the state of Texas.

As Robert Hyer was settled into his position as Regent of Southwestern he had dreams of expanding the school to increase the student population. His intentions of

growing the student population led him into the design and construction of two Southwestern University buildings. During his time as regent, Mood Hall and the Cullen building were built.[17] These buildings would help with the growth of the student

population. Many of us today walk these buildings on a regular basis without giving much thought to the person responsible for a significant amount of growth for this university.

While being busy with the construction of buildings throughout Robert Hyer’s regency he continued to teach students. This is a good example of his dedication to teaching students and his love for scientific research. In 1895 word of the X-ray was beginning to get out.[18] The news of this device interested Robert Hyer and led him to

attempt his own recreation for the device. Robert Hyer’s mechanical inclination and enjoyment of science would lead him to successfully recreate this device himself.

Having such a studious and intelligent professor explore the possibilities for this device would later become a huge benefit for the state of Texas.

Immediately after Robert Hyer saw this first X-ray he decided that he could replicate the ame device in his own laboratory at Southwestern.[19] He accomplished

this by ordering the more unique parts from a scientific catalog but many of the necessary parts he was able to recreate on his own.[20] With the use of his mechanical

knowledge it did not take long for Robert Hyer to recreate a functioning X-ray machine.

This recreation of the X-ray made it so Southwestern had one of the only X-ray machines in all of the state of Texas, and this caused many doctors to request help with the use of this machine.[21]  Many other people would request Help from Robert Hyer and this machine in order to help diagnose broken bones and foreign objects lodged under the skin.[22]  The application of this device to the citizens of Williamson County attracted a lot of positive attention. This positive attention earned Robert Hyer a very good reputation with people, this was supported by the fact that he only charged patients the cost of the light bulbs required for the photos.[23] These actions show a great deal of dedication to science and selflessness to operate such an important piece of medical technology without any motivation from money.

With this application of the X-ray being made available so readily to citizens of Williamson County, it is easy to see how Robert Hyer not only helped the scientific community, but also everyday people. News of these events spread. He began to see visitors regularly stopping by his laboratory to take a look at this new machine.[24] Allowing these visitors into his place of work was a great opportunity to allow information of this technology to spread. Allowing complete strangers into his laboratory shows how important this invention was, and also how dedicated Robert Hyer was to demonstrating this information. He saw so many visitors he decided to do an open lecture for this technology; furthermore, he decided to make this lecture completely free for anyone coming to visit.[25] This description surely gives a thorough understanding of Robert Hyer’s dedication to the popularization of this science.


Soon after applying this technology to patients Robert Hyer would realize that there was a strong need to spread this technology for the health of patients across the country. Robert Hyer took part in spreading this knowledge with the use of several methods. The most popular method he used to spread information on this topic was to hold public lectures at Southwestern University.[26] These public lectures were a very

successful way in teaching the community the benefit in this technology, these lectures were also free for all in attendance.[27] With the success of these public lectures Robert

Hyer saw a good opportunity to travel and spread this knowledge to further areas, this plan only happened once as it proved to be too much of a burden to be sustainable.[28]

As information of this technology began to gain popularity many hospitals quickly saw the benefit in this machinery and decided to invest in an X-ray machine. Hospitals

near Williamson County requested help from central Texas’s most experienced individual in X-ray technology, Robert Hyer.[29] Robert Hyer helping nearby hospitals with

their new technology would have been a great way to improve the quality of a hospital's application of this device. Another big part of expanding this technology was entertainment.

Not long after the invention of the X-ray was discovered it began to see use as a source of entertainment as well as for medical reasons. After this technology became more readily available people began to get X-ray pictures taken with it for fun.[30] Without

the present day knowledge of radiation many people exposed themselves to this radiation often without protective measures. Since Robert Hyer was one of the first in Texas to have this technology he oftentimes allowed visitors inside his laboratory to experience X-rays first hand.[31] This would have made one of the first examples of X-ray

entertainment in Texas to occur right in Southwestern University.


In today’s world the X-ray has been greatly refined, and experienced radiologists are capable of saving lives with very little risk of mishap. With the commonality of injuries amongst an aging population the X-ray is a very important addition to modern medicine. This device continues to make a positive impact. Without it kids could have long term injuries from broken bones, cancers could go undiagnosed, and objects inside the body could be almost impossible to find. These examples alone cover such a variety of common injuries that without this technology many of us could be negatively impacted. Robert Hyer’s use of the X-ray was helpful in removing a needle from a kid's foot and a bullet from a person's back.[32] Special collections, to this day, has a picture of

a dislocated hip taken by Robert Hyer at Southwestern University. These early examples of Robert Hyer’s X-ray usage show how even in the beginning stages this machine helped Williamson County residents recover from injuries.

The beginning of the X-ray was very experimental and had many shortcomings, but these shortcomings were soon remedied and this device grew into a piece of very important medical equipment. Many of the people involved in this experimentation could be considered scientists or entrepreneurs out to demonstrate the abilities of the X-ray.

Without these scientists using this technology and gaining real world experience the X-ray may not have grown into what it is today. Near the time of the invention's debut

the technology would have greatly depended on the actions of scientists to help spread the experience of the X-ray. This is why Robert Hyer’s X-ray experimentation and lectures had such a positive impact on Texas’s medical application of the X-ray.

The early 20th century was a time for many great discoveries and one of the most beneficial medical discoveries saw a great deal of its popularisation through Texas from Robert Hyer. Robert Hyer’s contribution to the state of Texas has been widely recognized and has even earned him an article on The Texas State Handbook as well as a place in Southwestern University’s record books. Robert Hyer was a master of physics and a very ambitious regent of Southwestern. His work has certainly impacted many students for generations and his work with the X-ray undoubtedly has saved many lives throughout Texas.

[1] Bynum, William F. A Little History Of Science. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2013.

[2] Ibid

[3] Sean F Johnston, History Of Science New York: Oneworld Publications, 2012.

[4] Bynum, William F. A Little History Of Science. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2013.

[5] Ibid

[6] Ibid

[7] Handbook of Texas Online, Robert Lewis Soulen, "HYER, ROBERT STEWART," accessed February

[8] Ibid

[9] Ibid

[10] Ibid

[11] Jones, Ralph Wood. Southwestern University, 1840-1961. Austin, Tex.: Jenkins Pub. Co., 1973.

[12] Ibid

[13] Handbook of Texas Online, Robert Lewis Soulen, "HYER, ROBERT STEWART," accessed February

[14] Jones, Ralph Wood. Southwestern University, 1840-1961. Austin, Tex.: Jenkins Pub. Co., 1973.

[15] Ibid

[16] Ibid

[17] Handbook of Texas Online, Robert Lewis Soulen, "HYER, ROBERT STEWART," accessed February 24, 2020,

Uploaded on June 15, 2010. Modified on February 15, 2019. Published by the Texas State Historical Association.

[18] Ray Hyer Brown, Robert Stuart Hyer; The Man I Knew Literary Licensing, LLC (April 21, 2012), 2012.

[19] Ibid

[20] Ibid

[21] Jones, Ralph Wood. Southwestern University, 1840-1961. Austin, Tex.: Jenkins Pub. Co., 1973.

[22] Ray Hyer Brown, Robert Stuart Hyer; The Man I Knew Literary Licensing, LLC (April 21, 2012), 2012.

[23] Ibid

[24] Ibid

[25] Ibid

[26] Ibid

[27] Ibid

[28] Ibid

[29] Ibid

[30] Pamboukian, Sylvia. ""Looking Radiant": Science, Photography and the X-ray Craze of 1896."

Victorian Review 27, no. 2 (2001): 56-74. Accessed April 26, 2020.

[31] Ray Hyer Brown, Robert Stuart Hyer; The Man I Knew Literary Licensing, LLC (April 21, 2012), 2012.

[32] Ibid.

The First X-Rays at SU (late 1800s)