The Life of Mihran K Kassabian

Radiology Pioneer

When delving into early Philadelphia Armenian history, you come across a surprising array of interesting and accomplished people of whom today sadly the community is hardly aware. These figures include a painter to Philadelphia’s high society, successful businessmen, and ministers such as Philadelphia’s first Rev. Jenanyan. Perhaps surpassing all of them in accomplishments and yet a name hardly heard today can be found buried directly behind Rev. Jenanyan at Arlington Cemetery. This man, Mihran Krikor Kassabian, was a pioneer in the field of radiology and one of the most prominent radiologists of his day along with some still well known today like Ernest Rutherford. Perhaps Kassabian would be similarly famous today had he not been cut down in his prime by the very subject he was researching.

Kassabian was born in Kayseri in 1870 and like many young Armenian children of his time he attended an American missionary school. He grew to become a teacher at the institute and then traveled to London in 1893 to further his career. During his time in London he became very interested in medicine and photography. He emigrated to Philadelphia to study at its Medico-Chirurgical College and supported himself through school. Just before graduating in 1898 the Spanish-American War broke out and he enlisted in the army's Hospital Corps where he gained experience in the new field of x-rays. He received his degree in medicine after graduation and worked at the hospital involved with photography and x-rays, helping to combine the two fields into one that could assist the medical field. He wrote text books on radiation, the first one published in 1900 called "X-ray as an irritant". In 1903 he was appointed director of the Roentgen-Ray Laboratory (as x-rays were called then, after their founder) at Philadelphia Hospital (now UPenn). As he worked he realized the danger of these rays- at a time when those experimenting with them were not shielded and their danger was not known. He began to notice health problems which he traced back to the exposure and realized x-rays caused negative chemical reactions in human tissue. He continued his work even as his skin and hands began to deteriorate due to the radiation and used his own personal case as an example in his studies. He used his photographic skill to record this deterioration, which began in 1900 from his exposure during the war, and was the first person to actually record and track with images the effects of radiological exposure.

His work was so important that even The New York Times reported his grave condition on July 11, 1910. They called him "one of the foremost X-ray operators in the United States" and that scientists had determined this skin cancer had come from repeat exposure to x-rays, making the world aware of their danger. He died a week later on July 18 and was proclaimed a ‘Martyr to Radiology’ after his death. His work is regarded as some of the most important in early radiation, credited by Roentgen (who won the Nobel Prize in 1901) as being invaluable. Some say Kassabian too might have one day won the Nobel Prize for his work had he lived, since Nobel Prizes are only awarded to living people. His work took his life but certainly saved countless others over the past century and has left both Armenians and the scientific world with an important legacy of someone of whom we can be proud. As a side note and possible personal connection to those of you who might remember, his relatives ran a tailor shop on Walnut Street (around 4400 or 4500)--well into the 1950s.

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