Sir James Mackenzie Davidson: A Founding Father of British Radiology


Sir James MacKenzie Davidson, a founding father of British Radiology and alumnus of the University of Aberdeen, was born in Santo Domingo Monastery, Quilmes, Argentina in 1856 where his father was a cattle rancher. His education began at the Buenos Aires Scottish School followed by medical studies in Edinburgh, London and Aberdeen, graduating MB CM in 1882.  On graduation, along with another young medic, Davidson set up an eye clinic in the east end of the city.  He subsequently became assistant to Sir Alexander Ogston, Aberdeen’s famous professor of surgery, under whom he developed his surgical and teaching skills.  In 1886 he was appointed physician to the Blind Asylum, Ophthalmic Surgeon to Aberdeen Royal Infirmary and The Royal Hospital for Sick Children, in which posts he promoted the new ‘aseptic’ method.  He was a popular teacher among the medical students inspiring many to excel at the same specialty. He remained in Aberdeen until 1897 when he was appointed consulting surgeon to the x-ray department in Charing Cross Hospital, London.

Alongside his medical career, James MacKenzie Davidson was a passionate and able public educator in physical sciences such as optics and electricity. He devised both experiments and apparatus which he used in “lavish displays”, according to the British Medical Journal, which were greatly appreciated by the general public.

In 1896 MacKenzie Davidson realising the importance of Roentgen’s original work on x-rays visited him at his home in Wuerzburg, Germany. On his return he managed to access a 10 inch coil and two Crookes tubes with which to experiment and ultimately produced probably some of the first X-rays or skiagraphs (as they were originally known) in Scotland.


Once he arrived in London he continued to develop the new diagnostic methodology in a variety of ways including inventing a new commonly used Mercury break known as the MacKenzie Davidson Break.  In 1898 he presented a “cross-thread localiser” to the Rontgen Society as well as developing the x-ray couch to which it could be attached. This made it possible through a series of Skiagraphs (x-rays) to image a foreign body three-dimensionally allowing the surgeon to accurately remove small/hidden objects, particularly useful in his own area of interest, the eye.


MacKenzie Davidson was also one of the earliest workers with Radium noticing its effectiveness in a number of disorders including X-ray dermatitis! He enduring several operations on his hands and his eventual death from Heart Failure may have been as a result of the long term effects of exposure to radiation, although, even today this is still subject to debate.

As with many medical advances the Second Boer War and World War I led to the rapid adoption of new technologies such as x-rays. The localizer, which could locate shrapnel and foreign bodies, became standard field equipment during the Boer War.  In 1916 he was appointed honorary consulting Radiologist to the district of London’s military hospitals.  He was consulting radiologist to the x-ray department of the Royal London Ophthalmic Hospital, Moorfields and of Charing Cross Hospital; president of the Röntgen Society of London 1912-1913 and of the Radiology section of the International Congress of Medicine in London in 1913; he was made a Knight in 1912; president of the British Institute of Radiology 1917-19; he also had the rare honour of being an honorary member of the American Roentgen Society.

In the tributes made after his death many refer to his generosity with his time and knowledge especially with his x-ray work, his originality and his enthusiastic advocacy for the future of medicine. The Röntgen Society of London, which became The British Society of Radiology, still, holds a yearly lecture called The Mackenzie Davidson Memorial Lecture, the first being given in April, 1920 by the Right Honourable Lord Rutherford, OM.

Outside of work two of his many interests included photography and motoring demonstrating his adventurous and pioneering spirit.

James Mackenzie Davidson is only one of the many interesting medical alumni to be found in our next exhibition ‘Medicine in Wartime’ opening 11 November 2017 in the Gallery, The Sir Duncan Rice Library, University of Aberdeen.



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