Wilhelm Conrad Röntgen
Wilhelm Conrad Röntgen, considered the discoverer of X-rays, is easily the best-known Nobel Laureate to have worked at the University of Würzburg.
On March 27, 1845, he is born the son of a draper in Lennep (a district of the city of Remscheid today). From 1861 to 1863, he attends the Technical School at Utrecht, which he leaves without a school-leaving certificate.
From 1865 to 1868, he studies Mechanical Engineering, Physics, and Aesthetics at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Zurich, completing his studies with a diploma in Mechanical Engineering on August 6, 1868.
From 1869 onwards, he begins pursuing his doctoral degree at Zurich, then working as the assistant of August Kundt at the Universities of Würzburg and Strasbourg.
He receives his habilitation at Strasbourg University in 1874 and takes up an associate professorship two years later. In 1879, he becomes a full professor at the University of Giessen, where he stays until 1888, when he moves to Würzburg as a tenured professor at the University. In 1893, Röntgen is elected Rector of the University of Würzburg.
In 1895, Röntgen discovers X-rays.
Five years later, Röntgen moves on to accept a professorship at the University of Munich. The following year, in 1901, he is awarded the Nobel Prize for Physics, "in recognition of the extraordinary merits he has acquired in discovering the rays named for him."
On February 10, 1923, Wilhelm Conrad Röntgen dies in Munich.
The Research Project that Led to the Nobel Prize
A contemporary field of interest for the experimentations of the time was electrical gas discharge. Precisely why Röntgen began to experiment with it, we do not know. Purposefully, he bought the appropriate equipment for investigating electrical high-voltage discharges in almost airless glass tubes. Perhaps he was looking for rays that were able to penetrate the glass of the tubes and that could be rendered visible on a fluorescent screen. The laboratory was almost completely dark. Only the luminescence inside the tube faintly illuminated it. He encased the tube in black cardboard. To his surprise, the fluorescent screen lit up! While experimenting with the screen, his hand came between the tube and the fluoroscopic screen. He saw the bones of his hand.
Working and Living in Würzburg
The Röntgens lived in a seven-room apartment on the top floor of the Institute of Physics at today's Röntgenring 8. During their time at Giessen, the childless couple had already taken in the six-year-old daughter of a relative, the poor health of the girl, however, not permitting regular school attendance. Their young housemaid also accompanied them to Würzburg. The Röntgens enjoyed the lively cultural scene of Würzburg, going to the theater and to concerts, and they were close friends with Theodor Boveri. Röntgen also leased hunting grounds in a nearby forest, Gramschatzer Wald.
Being an academic teacher fully occupied Röntgen's time. He started out with a little more than 100 students attending his lectures, yet after only two years their number had risen to 185. Five hours every weekday, he lectured on the entirety of Experimental Physics in the morning, the afternoons were devoted to private individual tutoring in Physics and to supervising interns and doctoral candidates. In 1893/1894, Röntgen held the office of Rector.
At the beginning of his term of office, he gave the customary inauguration speech, in which he offered clear criticism of the Bavarian university administration. In his introductory words, he demanded: "May the Prince and his advisers regard the maintenance and the promotion of the University as a matter of honor, and not merely measure it according to the number of useful civil servants, physicians, etc., it produces per year."
Late in his life, Röntgen commented on examinations:
"Most of the time, examinations do not provide any indication of a pupil's qualification for a specific subject: In general, they are a – regrettably – necessary evil. Alas for examinations! They are needed in order to prevent some people from embarking on a life of employment for which they would prove too lazy or too unskilful, and even this they do not always accomplish. Other than that, they are an ordeal for both parties involved, very often still causing bad dreams long afterwards. The real test of one's qualification for a profession only comes as we continue going through life."