Photojournalist, radio reporter, and film producer Harry Buckwalter (1867–1930) is considered Colorado’s first photojournalist. He was also one of the great technological innovators of the nineteenth- and early twentieth-century American West, known for his advances in X-ray photography, early adoption of radio, and moving pictures. Buckwalter began his illustrious career as a reporter for Denver’s Rocky Mountain News.
In 1895 professor Wilhelm Roentgen’s announcement that he had discovered the means for X-ray photography created considerable public interest across the nation. The Rocky Mountain News, eager for an unusual story, decided to sponsor X-ray experiments. It turned to its young reporter, Harry Buckwalter, a skilled photographer who was keenly interested in science and technology, to conduct them. Readers of the Rocky Mountain News came to know him in 1894 for his vivid description of a solo balloon ride over Denver. The idea of taking X-ray pictures intrigued Buckwalter greatly. He teamed up with Dr. Chauncey E. Tennant of the Denver Homeopathic College and in February set to work on what would become some of the earliest successful X-ray photographs developed in the United States.
Unable to locate a Crookes tube (named for William Crookes, a British scientist who worked with vacuum tubes), which was being used by X-ray experimenters on the East Coast, Tennant and Buckwalter decided to have tubes produced locally by the Diamond Incandescent Lamp Company. They encountered considerable difficulty producing tubes that could maintain the vacuum pressure necessary for X-ray photography, but by the first week of March 1896, they had several functioning tubes and attempted to make X-ray pictures. The first tube lost its vacuum at once, but the second tube produced exciting results. As reported in a front-page story in the Rocky Mountain News on March 9, 1896, “Another tube was then made, and it worked perfectly. Several negatives were made before it gave out. The principal one was that of Dr. Tennant’s hand, which was made in just five minutes, when the current was so great that a small hole was melted in the glass, destroying the vacuum.”
A third tube produced a view of several objects of varying densities, and the two X-ray photographs illustrated the story. Since the Rocky Mountain News had not begun to print halftone photographs yet, it was necessary to include an artist’s sketch of the X-ray photos. Until this time, most researchers had asserted that any glass used in the tubes must not contain lead, but the experiments of Buckwalter and Tennant had proven otherwise. The paper proudly proclaimed in its headlines, “Successful Experiments with Lead Glass Tubes Made by the News and Homeopathic College. Tubes made by a Denver Firm Give Much Better Results Than the Most Praised Product of Europe.” The experiments produced what were almost certainly the first X-ray pictures made west of the Mississippi and among the first in America. Buckwalter would have likely gone on to other news assignments, but publicity about the project quickly involved him in additional X-ray work.
Applications of X-Rays
In spring 1896, an irate miner shot Central City marshal Mike Kelher during Kelher’s attempt to garnish the miner’s wages for an unpaid medical bill. Central City deputies rushed Kelher to Denver’s St. Luke’s Hospital. There, doctors determined that the bullet was very near to Kelher’s heart but were afraid to operate without knowledge of its exact location. The doctors asked Buckwalter and Tennant to locate the bullet by X-ray, and the pair agreed to make what was one of the first clinical X-ray pictures ever taken. The exposure successfully located the bullet, but the surgeons decided that it was impossible to remove and the marshal died a short time later.
In fall 1896, Benjamin Lindsey, a young Denver attorney, approached Buckwalter and Tennant to request that they produce X-rays for a client involved in a malpractice case. They agreed, and in a landmark decision, their X-ray photograph became the first ever admitted as evidence in a court of law. James Smith was Lindsey’s client, a young man in his twenties. While trimming a tree, Smith had slipped from the ladder and fallen on his side. After experiencing considerable difficulty walking, Smith was treated by Dr. W. W. Grant, a well-respected physician and surgeon. Grant pronounced the problem a bruise or contusion of the muscles in Smith’s injured hip and advised exercise of those muscles. When Smith did not improve, he consulted another doctor who believed the problem stemmed from a fractured femur. Shortly thereafter, several other doctors advised Smith that Grant’s diagnosis might well be a case of malpractice. Smith retained Lindsey, who promptly filed a case against Grant in the District Court of Arapahoe County (now the District Court of Denver), on April 14, 1896. Buckwalter and Tennant produced X-ray photographs of Smith’s leg that showed a clear fracture of the femur, and the pair enjoyed national renown as the technicians behind the country’s first X-rays admitted in a court of law.
After the Smith case, Buckwalter chose not to continue working in the field of radiology. He quickly rose to the position of assistant city editor of the Rocky Mountain News, but within a few years he left the paper to work freelance. His photographs continued to appear in Denver’s papers for many years, but he also gained acclaim for his railroad photos as well as excellent mining and Native American scenes. In 1901 Buckwalter began making motion pictures, producing at least fifty short films over the next decade. Always an innovator, he was among the city’s first radio broadcasters during the early 1920s and an early radio dealer. Buckwalter died on March 7, 1930. A collection of Buckwalter’s glass plate negatives, including some of his early X-ray pictures, is housed in the History Colorado museum.
Adapted from William Jones, “Harry Buckwalter: Pioneer X-Ray Photographer,” Colorado Heritage Magazine 10, no. 1 (1990).