15th March 1930

X-ray ‘martyr’ John Spence dies

John Spence was a pioneer in the use of x-rays. The radiation poisoning he received as a result of his many years’ research ultimately led to his death, in Edinburgh, at the age of 59. He is buried in the city’s Dean Cemetery, where his gravestone describes him as “a beloved physician and friend of little children”. It also explains that “in the guise of radiological research he bravely suffered and died that others might live”.

Practical research

In his research, Spence wasn’t only interested in the theoretical aspects of his work, but their practical application, and he went further than most in testing his theories. He not only used his patients as test subjects, but frequently x-rayed his own arm, in the process causing it progressive damage. His fingers were removed one by one as they showed signs of ulceration and, by 1910 – twenty years before his death – tumours were already clearly breaking out on the limb. It got to the point where, eventually, the whole arm had to be amputated, just below the shoulder.

On 17 March 1930, under the heading ‘self-sacrifice for benefit of humanity’, the Western Morning News reported the news of his passing two days earlier, and noted that “by his self-sacrificing service he lost his right arm in 1916 and only recently had his other hand operated upon. The Carnegie Hero Fund trustees awarded him an annuity for his service to humanity”.

Memorial service

On the same day, The Scotsman devoted almost a full column length to the manner of his death, and describing his memorial service. It informed its readers that Spence’s death would have come as “no surprise to his many friends who have known of the serious state of his health for some months past… like many another pioneer in this perilous field of medical service, he has fallen victim to the powerful rays which he employed, and for many years he has suffered increasing mutilation and progressive impairment of health”.

Spence’s name is one of the 169 inscribed on the original Monument to the X-ray and Radium Martyrs of All Nations at St George’s Hospital in Hamburg, which was completed six years after his death. Additional martyrs have been included over the years on supplementary stones.



Other events that occured in March

FREE Scotland history newsletter

Don't miss our weekly update on Scotland's fascinating history. We promise never to sell your data to anyone else, and there's a super-easy unsubscribe link on the bottom of each email so you can leave whenever you want.