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Light therapy and visual culture in Britain, c. 1890–1940

Soaking up the rays forges a new path for exploring Britain’s fickle love of the light by investigating the beginnings of light therapy in the country from c.1890-1940. Despite rapidly becoming a leading treatment for tuberculosis, rickets and other infections and skin diseases, light therapy was a contentious medical practice. Bodily exposure to light, whether for therapeutic or aesthetic ends, persists as a contested subject to this day: recommended to counter psoriasis and other skin conditions as well as Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) and depression; closely linked to notions of beauty, happiness and well-being, fuelling tourism to sunny locales abroad and the tanning industry at home; and yet with repeated health warnings that it is a dangerous carcinogen. By analysing archival photographs, illustrated medical texts, advertisements, lamps, and goggles and their visual representation of how light acted upon the body, Woloshyn assesses their complicated contribution to the founding of light therapy. Soaking up the rays will appeal to those intrigued by medicine’s visual culture, especially academics and students of the histories of art and visual culture, material cultures, medicine, science and technology, and popular culture.

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represent bodies consuming therapeutic light – soaking up its rays – and the natural surroundings and technological paraphernalia enabling such exposures. Together they offer a salient point of entry into the history and visual culture of light therapy in Britain during the early twentieth century, the subject of this book. This supplement, which collapsed medical and popular conceptions of light therapy, evinces the central role light

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therapy as ‘light technologies’: technologies that both depended upon light as a source in order to function. Their similar photochemical operations would make them appear at first to be natural bedfellows. Certainly it seemed this way to practitioners, who looked to photographic processes and larger developments in photochemistry in order to understand how and why light therapy worked on patients. This is evident in the epigraph above, by

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Hospital of c. 1938, is an unusual and mysterious work, now contained in the closed stores of the Wellcome Library. Little is known about Langdon, and there is no evidence as to why she made this painting. 3 Produced almost four decades after the institutionalisation of light therapy in Britain (1900), Langdon’s painting depicts the original, and by now obsolete, versions of Finsen’s carbon arc lamp at a moment when the London Hospital was to refit

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remain incomplete, are sometimes contradictory, and are frequently confusing. Many and wide gaps in our knowledge still remain and I recognise fully that the scientific principles of light therapy still rest on an incomplete and not too stable basis. 1 (Henry Gauvain, 1925) With all the

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medical practitioners, however, urged caution towards these devices, both in the interests of public safety and light therapy’s reputation. While continuing to discuss light therapy’s appeal and legitimisation, this chapter shifts focus from the previous chapters, moving from the hospital and clinic to the home. It explores the ambivalent reception of home-use lamps when they emerged on the market during the 1920s and 1930s, as

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, in the healing process. In order to understand the place of suntan in light therapy we must explore how it was defined and conceptualised by physicians and popular promoters, and furthermore how that information was disseminated into the public domain. This is integral to comprehending its value , by which I mean its therapeutic and social worth and how that worth was bound up with gradations of pigment – with colour

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