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1897 advert for the Non-Collapsible Tyre Co., using an X-ray photograph by Hall-Edwards, and bearing his signature
Source: Wikimedia Commons

John Francis Hall-Edwards FRSE (19 December 1858 – 15 August 1926)[1] was a British physician and pioneer in the medical use of X-rays in the United Kingdom.[a]Hall-Edwards was born John Francis Hall Edwards, but began to hyphenate his name when he was in his forties.[2] He was initially unaware of the carcinogenic effects of radiation, which cost him the loss of his left arm and four fingers of his right hand; his name is one of the 169 inscribed on the Radiation Martyrs’ Memorial in Hamburg, Germany when it was erected in 1936.

Despite the loss of his fingers Hall-Edwards taught himself landscape painting. His long-standing interest in photography began to focus on spirit photographyTechnique popular in the 19th century to capture the invisible spirits of the deceased. Technique popular in the 19th century to capture the invisible spirits of the deceased. and the occult in general, which was not unusual for the time.

Personal life

The son of John Edwards, a druggist who went on to qualify as a medical doctor, Hall-Edwards was born on Moseley Road, Kings Norton near Birmingham. He attended the King Edward VI Grammar School in Birmingham before studying medicine at the Queens College Medical School, where he qualified as a licentiate of the Royal College of Surgeons, Edinburgh in 1885. During his time at Queens College Hall-Edwardes spent three years as assistant demonstrator in practical histology to the professor of physiology, Richard Hill Norris, a keen amateur photographer from whom Hall-Edwards gained a familiarity with photographic techniques.[2]

Hall-Edwards’ developing interest in photography resulted in him becoming President of the Midland Photographic Club from 1891 until 1893. In 1895 he was made an honorary Member of the Royal Photographic Society following a lecture to the London Camera Club. Initially his photographic work focused on images taken through microscopes.[2]

On 14 February 1893 Hall-Edwards married Constance Marie di Pazzi Clutton Blair Salt (1866–1923), daughter of John Clutton Blair Salt, manufacturer and dealer in works of art. The couple adopted a daughter, Violet Primrose Hall-Edwards (née Bell). [2]

Pioneer of X-rays

On 11 January 1896 Hall-Edwards made the first use of X-rays under clinical conditions when he radiographed the hand of an associate, revealing a sterilised needle beneath the surface.[3] A month later. on 14 February, he took the first radiograph to direct a surgical operation. He also took the first X-ray of the human spine.

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Blue plaque outside Birmingham Children’s Hospital, formerly Birmingham General Hospital
Source: Wikimedia Commons

In 1899 Hall-Edwards was made the first Surgeon Radiographer at the General Hospital in Birmingham.[2] In February the following year he joined the Royal Army Medical Corps with the rank of Major, and was assigned as chief radiologist to the Imperial Yeomanry Hospitals in Deelfontein, South Africa, during the Boer War. Despite initial problems with generating sufficient power for his two X-ray machines – the bicycle-powered dynamos proving to be inadequate for the task – Hall-Edwards succeeded by having an oil-powered engine converted for the job. During his 14 months in Deelfontein 280 patients were referred for X-rays.[4] In 1906 Hall-Edwards was elected as the first President of the British Electric-Therapeutic Society.[2]

Hall-Edwards’ interest in X-rays cost him his left arm. A cancer – then called X-ray dermatitis – was sufficiently advanced by 1904 to persuade him to write papers and give public addresses on the dangers of X-rays, which resulted in the introduction of  some protection against the effects of radiation. His left arm had to be amputated at the elbow in 1908,[5] and four fingers on his right hand soon afterwards, leaving only a thumb. His left hand is in the collection of the Birmingham University Museum, as a demonstration of the effects of radiation.

Hall-Edwards was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society of Edinburgh in 1911.[2] He served as a city councillor in Birmingham from 1920 to 1925 and sat on the Public Health Committee, where he promoted the knowledge and understanding of cancer.

Other interests

Despite the loss of his fingers Hall-Edwards taught himself to paint landscapes, using his surviving thumb and an artificial finger. He retained his interest in photography and in particular with spirit photographyTechnique popular in the 19th century to capture the invisible spirits of the deceased. Technique popular in the 19th century to capture the invisible spirits of the deceased. , and occultism in general. He was keen to expose fraudulent mediums and was very critical of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s belief that the photographs of the Cottingley FairiesThe Cottingley Fairies appear in a series of five photographs taken by Elsie Wright (1901–1988) and Frances Griffiths (1907–1986), two cousins who lived in Cottingley, near Bradford in England. were genuine.[2]

Selected works

  • Bullets and their Billets, or Experiences with the X-Rays in South Africa
  • X-Ray Dermatitis – its Cause, Cure, and Prevention
  • Carbon-dioxide Snow:  its Therapeutic Uses
  • The Radiography of Metals
  • The Radiography of Flowers (1914), published in the Archives of the Roentgen Ray
  • Cancer: its Control and Prevention (1926)


  • Civil List Pension (1908), in recognition of his work on the application of X-rays to medicine and surgery[1]
  • Carnegie Hero Trust Medallion (1922)[1]


Hall-Edwards died of “Xray dermatitis 24 years” and “chronic nephritis 2 years” at his home, 112 Gough Road in Edgbaston, on 15 August 1926, and was cremated at Perry Barr Crematorium. His was among the original 136 names engraved on the Radiation Martyrs’ Memorial in Hamburg, Germany, erected by the German Roentgen Society in 1936.[2]




Anon. “Hall-Edwards, John Francis.” Who’s Who 2018 & Who Was Who, Online, Oxford University Press, 2007,
Major John Hall-Edwards. “Birmingham City Council.” Birmingham City Council,
Meggitt, Geoff. Taming the Rays: A History of Radiation and Protection., 2008.
Reinarz, Jonathan. “Edwards, John Francis Hall (1858–1926).” Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Online, Oxford University Press,
Richard Mould. “Military Radiology Before & During the First World War 1896–1918.” The Invisible Light, no. 39, Oct. 2014, pp. 6–19.