fig. 17: Elizabeth Fleischmann
Examining a patient with her portable flouroscope.

Tribute · Bibliography · Obituary

Elizabeth Fleischmann: A Tribute
by Peter E. Palmquist

Who was Elizabeth Fleischmann? Thus far, her biographical record is quite sparse. She was apparently born in El Dorado County (perhaps Placerville, California). By 1880, however, the family had moved to San Francisco where they were listed in the census of that year. Her parents were Jacob (employed as a baker) and Kate Fleischmann; both born in Austria, ages 47 and 40 respectively. There were a total of five children: Estelle (age 16), Elizabeth (15), Minnie (12), Mathias (10), and Milton (7). Apparently the family had moved to San Francisco for financial reasons since it was said that the children were "early thrown upon their own resources." Although Elizabeth was listed as being in school, her 16-year-old sister was already employed in the same bakery where her father worked.

Elizabeth was first listed in the 1882 San Francisco directory. This was about the time that she was attending her senior year at the Girl's High School on Bush Street. She did not complete her senior year. Instead, Elizabeth went to work to assist her family with their troubled finances. By 1894 the family had expanded its outlook. Elizabeth's father now operated a variety and cigar store on 16th Street. One of her brothers (Mathias R.) had become a manufacturing agent and another (Milton P.) worked as a salesman in the clothing and furnishing industry. Both brothers, however, were involved in music and were frequently listed as musicians in the city directory. At this time, Elizabeth was listed as a bookkeeper for the firm of Friedlander & Mitau (manufacturers of ladies' and children's underwear). She resided with her family at 1017 Oak Street.

In the winter of 1895 Roentgen announced his fateful discovery of the X-ray to selected members of the scientific community and subsequently to the international media. Elizabeth - probably nearing 30 years of age at this time - became quickly interested in these magical rays which were capable of "penetrating all woven fabrics as if they were mere vapor, piercing the flesh...[and] passing through cords and muscles and bones with varying facility." Her interest in the application of the X-ray to medicine was undoubtedly influenced and supported by her brother-in-law, Michael J.H. Woolf (a San Francisco physician with offices at 229 Geary Street). Dr. Woolf, an Englishman, was married to Elizabeth's older sister Estelle. Interestingly, in 1895, he was listed as having both his medical office and residence at 1017 Oak Street, the same address as the Fleischmann family.

fig. 18: X-Ray of Belgian Hare
by Elizabeth Fleischmann

In less than a year, Elizabeth had mastered the technique of radiophotography and opened the very first X-ray laboratory in California. Located at 611 Sutter Street this facility soon came to be regarded as the best equipped radiology lab in the American West. Her advertisement in the San Francisco city directory was as follows: "FLEISCHMANN ELIZABETH MISS / radiographer, X-Ray Laboratory, 611 Sutter, hours 9 am to 12 am and 2 to 5 pm, tel[ephone] Green 391, r[esidence] 1606 Post." After 1901 she added the phrase "Sundays and evenings by appointment," and listed her residence as 615 Taylor Street.

Early experimentation with X-ray photography had taken place elsewhere in California; notably the work of O.V. Lange of Berkeley and J.P. Spooner in Stockton. However, most of these experiments were conducted along the lines of novelty rather than as a serious attempt to use the ray professionally. A spot check of San Francisco city directories reveals that Fleischmann was seemingly the only person to advertise radiography through at least 1910, and it was not until 1917 that a listing for X-ray equipment and repair can be found. The implications are that, even if physicians (in San Francisco hospitals) made use of X-ray equipment, Fleischmann was not only California's earliest radiologist but was so by a margin of many years.

Fleischmann's sudden public visibility appears to fly blatantly in the face of traditional social convention - any woman, let alone a young Jewish woman - operating as a professional, was certainly uncommon in 1896. It is perhaps indicative of her strong personal resolve that when she married in 1900 she hyphenated her name, "Fleischmann-Aschheim."

Her husband was Israel Julius Aschheim who was the grand secretary of the Independent Order of B'nai B'rith (District No. 4). Aschheim was born in Prussia and had arrived in California by 1868. His earliest activities with the B'nai B'rith began as a boy, in 1874, when he helped to organize a benevolent society in Merced, California. He was a member of Congregation Beth Israel, Federation of Jewish Charities and numerous other organizations including serving as the assistant secretary to the California Board of Education in 1894.

Fleischmann's accomplishments cannot be taken lightly. She apparently had not finished high school, yet she was able to grasp the scientific principles almost instantly (she appears to have been producing radiographs by mid-1896). It must be remembered that the news of Roentgen's discovery did not reach the popular press until January 5, 1896 (The Vienna Presse), and even the illustrious inventor, Thomas Alva Edison (who was almost immediately interested and involved in the X-ray process), encountered difficulty in perfecting the technique. (He later developed one of the first fluoroscopes.)

Obtaining ready-made equipment was also difficult in the beginning and many of the first experimenters were forced to devise their own equipment; often with the assistance of early guidebooks such as the popular Something About X-Rays for Everybody (1896).

Popular accounts, both rumor and fact, continued to flood the media during the early years of the X-ray. Not the least of which was the supposed possibility that the ray could be used to undress attractive ladies at will; the following ditty was typical of this impure interest which even encouraged an English manufacturing firm to advertise X-ray-proof underclothing for ladies:

I'm full of daze
Shock and Amaze;
For now-a-days
I hear they'll gaze
Thru' cloak and gown - and even stays,
Those naughty, naughty Roentgen Rays.

The downside of X-ray work was the danger of the operator and/or patient getting radiation burns, and also the long-term side effects which often led to cancer. The first to die from an overexposure to X-rays was Edison's assistant, Clarence Dally (he succumbed in 1904). By the end of 1896 there were more than 20 cases of severe X-ray injuries, mostly to radiologists and manufacturers of X-ray tubes. For a while many blamed electricity, ozone exposure or faulty equipment, rather than the ray itself. Early X-ray exposures of 20 minutes duration (on occasion several hours) were common. Moreover, it was a typical practice for radiographers to place their own hand in front of the fluoroscope to check exposures, etc. (see back cover illustration from an 1896-era guide to X-ray photography). Because the X-ray tubes were nearly always unshielded, over-exposure to the ray was inevitable. Even after the terrible effects of X-ray burns had been noted, the medical profession was further shocked by a second plague of deaths caused by radiation-induced cancers.

Although original examples of Fleischmann's X-ray work are unknown today, we are fortunate that a limited number of these were published in connection with articles which profiled her work (Examples were published in the article on Fleischmann published by the San Francisco Chronicle on June 3, 1900).

Considering the great medical impact of Fleischmann's pioneering work as an X-ray photographer, and her apparent exclusivity as California's only professional X-ray photographer at an early time, it is hard to understand why she has been so forgotten in the literature of today. Clearly, it is high time for us to remember and eulogize the accomplishments and sacrifice of this gutsy woman, Elizabeth Fleischmann-Aschheim. In a more global sense, it is as though we had failed to remember Madame Curie - unthinkable.

100 Years of California Photography by Women

All text © Peter E. Palmquist
Elizabeth Fleischmann: Pioneer X-Ray Photoqrapher (exhibition catalogue).
Berkeley, California: Judah L. Magnes Museum, 1990.