Thematic History of the Department

Radiology at Penn began even before the beginning. In late 1895, German physicist Wilhelm Conrad Roentgen announced his seminal discovery of x-rays. Almost immediately, Penn Physics Professor Arthur Willis Goodspeed realized he had produced x-rays almost six years before, and had the physical plates to prove it. But rather than looking backward, Goodspeed looked forward instead. He quickly teamed with Penn surgeons J. William White and Charles Lester Leonard to produce, on February 4, 1896, one of the first recorded patient exposures using x-rays. That spring, Leonard was named the University Hospital's first "skiagrapher," and arguably the first academic department of radiology in the United States and, perhaps, the world was born. Looking forward became the Department's hallmark from the outset.


These early adventures in science, scholarship, and patient care foreshadowed much of the history of this pre-eminent Department over the next century. The journey has been marked by a continuous quest for the very best people, programs, and resources. The Department's academic leadership has been internationally distinguished and stable. Only six individuals have held the permanent Chairmanship since 1896: Charles Leonard (1896-1902), Henry K. Pancoast (1902-1939), Eugene P. Pendergrass (1939-1961), Richard H. Chamberlain (1961-1975), Stanley Baum (1975-1996), and R. Nick Bryan (1999-present). In addition, George Edward Pfahler, a "towering figure in radiology for more than half a century,"* served as Vice Dean of Radiology at Penn's Graduate School of Medicine from 1916 to 1946.

The Department's scholarly and patient care missions have dictated its organizational evolution. The initial interest of surgeons in using x-rays to facilitate their work helped keep Radiology within the Department of Surgery until 1939, when Radiology was made an independent department. Later, as science and medicine progressed, the Department reassessed whether its dual focus on diagnosis and therapy had become too broad, leading to the establishment of a separate Department of Radiation Oncology in 1977. At about the same time, increasing subspecialization within the radiology discipline led to the restructuring of the Department in the 1970's to reflect the discipline's changing realities. This reorganization was accompanied by the seminal change agreed to in 1975, when the Department ceased to be the private proprietorship of the Chair and all Department faculty became full-time academic faculty of Penn and the medical staff of the Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania (HUP).


Scholarship in the Department has been robust and wide-ranging, and centered on the major issues in the field. A key focus has been on translational medicine adopting the latest advances in both basic science and clinical research to the benefit of patients. From the beginning, for example, the discipline was concerned with developing better -- and safer -- x-ray equipment, and Penn researchers have contributed heavily in these areas, particularly Goodspeed, Leonard and Pfahler in the early years, and later David Kuhl (radioisotope scanner design) and Chamberlain (radiation safety and measurement). Mortimer Mendelsohn, a radiobiologist who was the Department's first dedicated research scientist in 1958, contributed significantly to studies of human cancer treatments. In recent years, Department faculty have achieved international reputations for developments in computed tomography (CT), positron emission tomography (PET), and especially magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) modalities.

For over a hundred years, the Department has been characterized by the strength of its academic leadership, the continuing effort to advance the educational, research, and clinical frontiers of the radiology discipline, and on-going organizational evolution and resource development to ensure that it is optimally structured and equipped to meet present and future medical and scientific challenges.

* For an excellent and detailed history of the Department, please see Otha W. Linton, MSJ, A Century of Radiology at the University of Pennsylvania, The Department of Radiology, University of Pennsylvania, 1999.