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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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(London). In the Times supplement, 22 May 1928, p. xxxix. ‘Light therapy’ encompassed a variety of methods and approaches. Bodies consumed therapeutic light in one of two ways: outdoors in the natural sunshine, known as heliotherapy; or indoors with artificial, electrical substitutes, known variously as phototherapy, artificial sunlight therapy

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practitioners of both natural sunlight therapy (heliotherapy) and artificial light therapy (phototherapy). Patients’ photosensitivities were monitored closely to gauge whether the treatment would be successful or not, but the degree and kind of reaction produced to determine ‘success’ varied enormously among practitioners, in Britain and abroad. As I discuss in Chapter 5 , pigmentation (‘suntan’) had a related role to play, many

in Soaking up the rays
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is favourable for heliotherapy, and that the pigment acts as a transformer in the tissues of light rays into some other form of radiation, which has a beneficial effect. 28 This is but one example of the ambivalent attitudes in Britain towards the role or ‘value’ of pigmentation to gauge light therapy’s efficacies. Further ambivalence

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photography and developments in photochemistry as explanations to substantiate his belief that rickets could be cured by the systematic use of sunbaths (heliotherapy): I would now urge that the physiological and therapeutic actions of sunlight have hitherto met with too scanty recognition, and that though our knowledge of them is at present vague, it is

in Soaking up the rays
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, historical review of heliotherapy in the massive two-volume, internationally authored Traité d’hélio- et d’actinologie (1937), the Swiss heliotherapist Oskar Bernhard included a reproduction of the ancient Egyptian relief of Akhenaten, Nefertiti, and their children under the sun’s emanating, life-giving rays ( Fig. 4.8 ). 35 Spiritual rays and halos of divine light encircling the bodies of saints, martyrs, and the Holy

in Soaking up the rays