Elizabeth Fleischman

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Elizabeth Fleischman, 1899

X-ray of James Edwards, a soldier wounded during the Spanish-American War. The image shows a Mauser projectile that passed through the spine and was 5 cm to the right of the spine over the third intercostal space. Taken by Elizabeth Fleischman

X-ray of the skull of John Gretzer Jr. showing a projectile in the brain. Taken on 20 August 1899 by Elizabeth Fleischman

Elizabeth Fleischman-Aschheim (born March 5, 1867 in Placerville, California; † August 3, 1905 in San Francisco, California) was an American radiographer who is considered an X-ray pioneer. She was the first woman to die from the effects of X-ray radiation.

Life and work

Elizabeth Fleischman (also: Fleischmann) was born one of five children to Jewish immigrants from Austria. Her mother Katherine Lezansky was born in Prague and had several family members who were doctors in what is now the Czech Republic. Her father Jacob Fleischman was a baker. The family had lived in San Francisco since 1876, where Elizabeth attended Girls’ High School until 1882. To support her family, she took courses in bookkeeping and office organization and worked for a time as a bookkeeper for Friedlander & Mitau, an underwear manufacturer in San Francisco. After her mother’s death, she moved in with her sister Estelle and worked in the office of her sister’s husband, English physician and surgeon Michael Joseph Henry Woolf. In 1896 she read about Wilhelm Roentgen’s discovery of X-rays, which was reported in the morning edition of “Die Presse” in Vienna.[1] In August 1896, she attended a public lecture and presentation of X-ray equipment by Albert Van der Naillen in San Francisco and enrolled in the Van der Naillen School of Engineering, where she studied electrical engineering. After graduation, she borrowed money from her father to buy X-ray equipment. In 1897, she set up an X-ray laboratory in San Francisco, where she examined patients on behalf of local physicians. This work required both anatomical and photographic expertise to produce clear images.

X-ray pioneer

In 1898, American newspapers reported the results of her work examining commercially traded foods with X-rays to detect contamination. In December 1898, she began working as a radiographer for the U.S. Army, sending wounded soldiers from the Spanish-American War back to the United States via San Francisco. On August 20, 1899, she took one of her most famous radiographs, showing a 7-mm Mauser projectile in the brain of John Gretzer Jr. who had been wounded in the Philippines. Reports of the case were published in the International Text-Book of Surgery and other newspapers in 1902. Another case of a projectile in the skull of a soldier x-rayed by Fleischman was also reported in newspapers in 1899. Her work during the Spanish-American War was praised by U.S. Army Surgeon General George Miller Sternberg. Some of her x-rays were used by surgeon William Cline Borden to illustrate his book on the medical use of x-rays in the Spanish-American War.

In 1900, at the age of 32, Fleischman married the assistant secretary of the California Board of Education, Israel Julius Aschheim. In March 1900, she became a charter member of the Roentgen Society of the United States, which later became the American Roentgen Ray Society. She was among the few members of the Society who were not physicians. That same year, the American X-ray Journal, founded in 1897, described her work and accomplishments.

At the time she worked as a radiologist, X-ray tubes were not only unshielded, it was common for operators to place their own hands in front of their fluoroscope to check exposure. In addition, Fleischman frequently exposed herself to X-rays to show patients that the procedure was painless. Beginning in 1903, the effects of seven years of unprotected X-ray exposure appeared as X-ray dermatitis on her hands. She attributed this irritation to the chemicals she used in developing photographic plates. In 1904 she was responsible for introducing protective measures for operators of X-ray equipment. She commented on the merits of double-glazing and metals such as lead, aluminum, iron, and copper to shield X-rays. In late 1904, her dermatitis developed into cancer. Her doctors attempted to remove a tumor on her right hand, but this failed to stop the progression of the carcinoma, and in 1905 her right arm and shoulder blade with the collarbone were amputated. The March 4, 1905 issue of Electrical World and Engineer reported on the amputation of Fleischman’s right arm and her retirement from radiography.

Four months later, the cancer recurred and metastases were found in her lungs. Fleischman died on August 3, 1905, at the age of 38. The obituary published in the San Francisco Examiner and San Francisco Chronicle noted that she was the second person and the first woman to die as a result of X-ray exposure. In 1904, Clarence Dally, an American glassblower and assistant to Thomas Edison, had died under similar circumstances to Fleischman.


  • Francis A. Duck: Physicists and Physicians: A History of Medical Physics from the Renaissance to Röntgen. Institute of Physics and Engineering in Medicine, 2013, ISBN 978-1-903613-55-9.
  • Nicholas Senn: The X-ray in Military Surgery. Philadelphia Medical Journal, 1900, pp. 36-37.
  • Report of Dr. George Childs Macdonald in Porter, Charles Allen: The Pathology and Surgical Treatment of Chronic X-ray Dermatitis. Trans. American Roentgen Ray Society, 1908, p. 155.
  • Peter E. Plamquist: Elizabeth Fleischmann-Aschheim: Pioneer X-Ray Photographer. Western States Jewish History 23/1.
  • Norton B. Stern: Elizabeth Fleischmann-Aschheim: Pioneer X-Ray Photographer. Western States Jewish History 35/3,4.

Web links

Commons: Elizabeth Fleischman– Collection of images, videos and audio files

Individual references

  1. Martin Goes: Friedrich Dessauer (1881-1963): X-ray pioneer from Aschaffenburg and in exile since 1934. In: Würzburger medizinhistorische Mitteilungen. Vol. 14, 1996, p. 209.