S2A3 Biographical Database of Southern African Science

Perrins, Mr Charles Henry (engineering, radiology)

Born: December 1861, Birmingham, England.
Died: 21 September 1946, Johannesburg, South Africa.

Charles H. Perrins emigrated to South Africa from Britain and by 1891 was living in Johannesburg. In November 1892 his father, W. Perrins of Birmingham, requested information about the whereabouts of his son from the government of the South African Republic via diplomatic channels, describing him as 30 years old, about 1,73 m tall, with dark hair and eyes. The chief of detectives, who was asked to investigate, reported that C.H. Perrins was living in Johannesburg and could easily be contacted. In May 1893 he married Kate F. Skuse. After her death he married Johanna I. Kemp, who survived him. He had two sons, named Charles Herbert and Norman. Perrins's occupation was given as manufacturing chemist.

Only seven months after the German physicist W.C. Röntgen announced his discovery of X-rays in December 1895, Perrins was demonstratng the generation and application of the rays in Johannesburg, and was the first person in southern Africa to do so. His first public demonstration, briefly reported in the Cape Times of 9 July 1896, appears to have been given before members of the Geological Society of South Africa. The paper also reported that Perrins had made a shadowgram of the foot of a patient of Dr [William] Robertson*, in which a growth of bone had formed, and the photograph facilitated the operation necessary for its removal. This experiment represents the first reported medical application of X-rays in southern Africa. Other demonstrations of radiography soon followed, for example, Perrins took an X-ray of the wrist of Mr Michael Ray, secretary of the Chemical and Metallurgical Society of South Africa, showing the damage caused by an old bullet wound, including the hole made by the entrance of the bullet and the displacement of the bone; and a photograph of the wrist of a well-known jockey, who was injured in a fall during a race in April 1896, showing a fracture of the arm close to the wrist and the displacement of some of the small wrist bones. These demonstrations were all conducted by Perrins before 15 August 1896, and indicate that the potential medical benefits of X-ray photos was immediately appreciated in South Africa.

The demonstration by Perrins that was most fully reported took place on 15 August 1896 at a meeting of the Chemical and Metallurgical Society of South Africa held in the council room of the Chamber of Mines building, Johannesburg. The president of the society, W.R. Feldtmann*, was in the chair and described Perrins as "rather averse to appearing in public". Also present was the medical practitioner and self-taught geologist Dr Hugh Exton*, who spoke enthusiastically about the medical benefits already derived from Perrins's experiments. Few details of the apparatus used by Perrins were reported, but it proved possible to compile the following general description from a variety of sources (Plug, 2001). Electrical power for the apparatus was provided by a rechargeable lead-acid battery, wired to the primary windings of an induction coil. The power was regularly interrupted by a mechanical or electromechanical device, with a suitable capacitor bridging the interruptor, thus producing high voltage pulses in the secondary windings of the coil. The length of a spark between two adjustable spark rods on the coil provided some indication of the voltage produced. The high voltage pulses were fed via uninsulated copper wires to the electrodes of a Crookes tube [see W. Crookes*], which Perrins had loaned from the firm Reunert & Lenz. The stream of electrons passing through the tube generated X-rays when striking the platinum anode. The tube was mounted on a stand some 30 cm above a table. A photographic plate, enclosed in a light-tight envelope, was placed on the table directly under the tube, with the object to be photographed on top of it. Although the coils used by Perrin could produce pulses of several hundred kilovolts, little of the electrical energy was transformed into X-rays of high penetrating power. Coupled with the modest power output of the battery this meant that an exposure time of about 15 minutes was required to photograph the bones of the hand.

Very soon after Perrins's first demonstrations experiments with X-rays were performed by Albert E. Walsh* in Port Elizabeth (13 August 1896) and Professor James Holm* in Cape Town (26 August 1896). However, Perrin's work was slightly earlier and also demonstrated the medical benfits most clearly. Yet he seems to have abandoned his investigations soon after the demonstration on 15 August. South African experiments with X-rays were only resumed during the first half of 1898, by Robert H. Gould*.

Perrins was a member of the Geological Society of South Africa in 1897, but no longer in 1899. During 1899 and 1900 (just before and during the early stages of the Anglo-Boer War) he was active in the development of arms for the government of the South African Republic, writing to them about the manufacture of a cannon, building a model of a land torpedo, and experiments he wished to conduct with bombs. He was also planning to produce artificial fertiliser in Johannesburg at this time. According to Rosenthal (1970) Mr Charles H. Perrins wrote to the magazine South African Mines, Commerce and Industries in 1907, reporting on prospecting for oil on the farm Paardekraal, near Heilbron, by a private syndicate. It seems that he remained in Johannesburg for the rest of his life, as he was living in Braamfontein from 1926 or earlier to at least 1940.

List of sources:
Plug, C. The introduction of röntgen rays and radiography into South Africa in 1896. Adler Museum Bulletin, 2001, Vol. 27(1), pp. 4-10.

Rosenthal, E. South Africa's oil search down the years. Cape Town: Howard Timmins, 1970.

Compiled by: C. Plug