The emergence of the silent witness: The legal and medical reception of X-rays in the USA

Tal Golan

Research output: Contribution to journalReview articlepeer-review

37 Scopus citations


The late 19th-century discovery of X-rays befuddled not only the scientific world but also the medical and legal worlds. The possibility of looking into the human body as if through an open window challenged the time-honored medical monopoly over the inner cavities of the human body. Likewise, the possibility of visualizing objects unavailable to the naked eye challenged the established legal theories and practices of illustration and proof. This paper describes the reactions to those challenges by the medical and the legal professions in the USA. The two professions are treated as connected social institutions, producing ongoing negotiations through which legal doctrines affect medicine no less than scientific discoveries and medical applications affect the law. This joint analysis rewards us with a rich story about an early and overlooked chapter in X-ray history on the professionalization of radiology, the origins of defensive medicine, and the evolution of the legal theory and practice of visual evidence.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)469-499
Number of pages31
JournalSocial Studies of Science
Issue number4
StatePublished - 1 Aug 2004


  • Defensive medicine
  • Expert testimony
  • Professionalization of radiology
  • Science and law
  • Scientific evidence
  • Visual evidence

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • History
  • General Social Sciences
  • History and Philosophy of Science


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