The Moment

The Historical Arc of Genzo Shimadzu Sr. and Jr.


The X-ray system that sparked the notion of science as a practical endeavor

The story that follows occurred near the end of the Meiji period (1868 to 1912): A drainage channel became clogged in the water supply reservoir for the town of what is currently know as Kameoka, in Kyoto prefecture. Water would no longer flow from the reservoir, and there seemed to be no good way to repair the channel.
The frustrated citizens thought that perhaps Genzo Shimadzu Jr. could solve the problem, and so with great anticipation, they decided to ask for his help.

When Genzo heard about the problem, he immediately envisaged a new type of water discharge system, and gave instructions for it to be constructed. He used the principle of a siphon to swiftly lower the water level, thereby restoring the Kameoka reservoir to its former state.

This episode is typical of Genzo, who was constantly telling his employees that, “Science is a practical endeavor. There is no point in theoretical knowledge if it isn’t applied to help people.” To this day, “Contributing to Society through Science and Technology” remains an important philosophy at Shimadzu Corporation.

Siphon Principle
Siphon Principle

In 1895 (Meiji 28), a German scientist, Dr. Roentgen, discovered X-rays, and reported in a medical journal that he had discovered a new kind of radiation. This discovery would earn him the first Nobel Prize in Physics. The next year, in 1896 (Meiji 29), research in this area began in Japan.
In Kyoto, Professor Muraoka of Daisan Senior High School (the predecessor to Kyoto University) decided to make use of the laboratories at Shimadzu Corporation because of their power supply equipment.

Dr. Roentgen
Dr. Roentgen

Genzo had built an induction electrostatic generator at the age of 15, much to the surprise of those around him. At the time, “Shimadzu electricity” was renowned as a device for high-voltage generation.
Though attempts to obtain X-ray images initially failed, they eventually succeeded, thanks to an electric generator modified by Genzo. Success came a mere 11 months after Dr. Roentgen’s discovery of X-rays.

But the story does not end there.
Actually, it was not only Genzo that succeeded in creating X-ray images. There were other researchers in Japan that succeeded at more or less the same time.
Yet no one else took their discovery beyond the level of “research”.
Genzo was the only one that was aiming to move from simply obtaining images to discovering practical applications.

Wimshurst Electrostatic Generator
Wimshurst Electrostatic Generator

As early as 1887 (Meiji 30), Genzo created an educational X-ray system. This system, which enabled experimentation using actual X-rays, was revolutionary in the educational world.
At the beginning of the 1900s, medical X-ray systems were imported from overseas.
Not wishing to lose out, Genzo began investing more effort in research and development.

Educational X-Ray Device
Educational X-Ray Device

Finally, in 1909 (Meiji 42), 13 years after obtaining the first X-ray image, Shimadzu released Japan’s first medical X-ray device.

This system, which used a benzene generator to charge a storage battery, was delivered to the Army hospital in Chiba Prefecture, and to many other locations.
“Science is meaningless if it is not useful to people.” This philosophy did not stop with his X-ray system. In fact, Genzo went on to build a school to train radiology technologists (now the Kyoto College of Medical Science).
He became the headmaster himself, teaching the students to focus not just on the technology, but also on caring for the well-being of the patients.
As a pioneer in X-ray systems, Shimadzu Corporation continues to be active at the cutting edge of this field. At the root of this success is Genzo’s philosophy of emphasizing people, not researchers.

Examining a Patient with an X-Ray System, circa 1921
Examining a Patient with an X-Ray System, circa 1921