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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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( Plate 1 ), the image conflates natural and artificial exposures, collapsing the distinction between experiences. These include the different outputs of sunshine versus the mercury vapour bulb (the latter considerably higher in ultraviolet radiation), the physical spaces of dark interior versus sunlit exterior, as well as erasing the technological mediation of goggles and electric components required for artificial exposures

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to the individual patient. This is the focus of Section II . Despite being latent, variable, and unique to each patient, practitioners spent enormous time and energy trying to standardise erythema production so as to ‘dose’ ultraviolet radiation safely and effectively. This tension between standardisation and individualisation, the hallmarks of biomedicine and holism respectively, lay at the heart of a struggle to control and legitimise light

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readily consumed ultraviolet radiation and pigmented? Dr Murray Levick, describing light-therapy experiments he carried out at St Thomas’ Hospital on child patients exhibiting ‘debility, with anorexia, listlessness, general malnutrition and fretfulness’, stated in 1924: ‘It was interesting to note that a little negro boy made very tardy progress alongside a white boy who made a rapid recovery.’ 9 Since

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-century Britain. 8 Like electricity, artificially produced ultraviolet radiation required ‘domestication’. To be consumed en masse it needed to be harnessed, controlled, and ‘tamed’ within the home. With their emanating penetrative radiation and electrical wiring, home-use lamps were potentially volatile devices that could burn and shock users. To be effectively advertised, these new devices required a new aesthetic, one that

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’, declared the opening article. 6 Manufacturers advertised an array of home-use and clinical lamps, propounding to nourish Britain’s ‘sun-starved’ citizens (e.g., Fig. 1.4 ). Other products offered unfettered access to sunlight through their own transparency: ‘Vita’ glass windows and ‘Celanese’ fabric were permeable to ultraviolet radiation, allowing for bodily exposure to sunlight even when indoors

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lighting. Actinic light took centre stage in the intertwined histories of photography, electric lighting, and therapies utilising the wavelengths of the electromagnetic spectrum. As Kelley Wilder made clear, photography’s real calling card is its reputation for widening the scope of what could be observed by the eye. Ultraviolet radiation, called variously the chemical spectrum and

in Soaking up the rays