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.
Contained within the closed stores of the Wellcome Library is an unusual painting about light therapy, made by a now-obscure British artist, Beatrice Langdon. In 1938 she painted the Light Department of the Royal London Hospital, a work commemorating the impact of the Finsen lamp in the battle against tuberculosis of the skin (lupus vulgaris). Produced almost four decades after the institutionalisation of light therapy in Britain (1899), Langdon’s painting depicts the original, and by now obsolete, version of Finsen’s carbon arc lamp at a moment when the London Hospital was to refit new, smaller and more efficient lamps. The exact reasons for Langdon’s painting are, however, unknown, and this concluding chapter leads off from the mysteries and loose threads surrounding the work to discuss the many other silences, absences, and dead ends in the history of light therapy. It also explores contemporary images - a photograph by Danish photographer Nicolai Howalt and a campaign poster by Cancer Research UK and Nivea - to consider the UK’s ongoing ambivalent relationship with actinic light, which remains at once a source of health and of risk.
Soaking up the rays’ methodological focus on visual material brings new insights to the inception and growth of light therapy during early twentieth century Britain, introduced in this chapter by an exploration of a special 44-page supplement of The Times on light and health. The 1928 supplement presents a fascinating - even confounding - array of images, at once explaining and driving popular interest in the therapeutic value of light, and signals The Times’ overwhelming support of light as a panacea to improve national health. By 1928 light therapy reached its zenith of public acclaim, but even then its value and successes were being challenged by sceptics. Paying close attention to the many and varied representations of light therapy within the supplement, this chapter traces the earliest articulations and anxiety-ridden efforts to legitimise this nascent therapy back to the 1890s, when Danish Nobel laureate Dr Niels Finsen’s experiments prompted Queen Alexandra to introduce, and institutionalise, light therapy in Britain. In doing so this introductory chapter identifies major British practitioners and protagonists, key institutions, manufacturers and other overlooked agents (notably female nurses), discusses secondary sources, and lays out the aims and approaches of the book.
Chapter 3 explores the frequent analogies made by light therapists between photographs and skin, and perceptions of the resemblances between photography and light therapy as technologies that both depended upon light in order to function. Their similar photochemical operations would make them appear at first to be natural bedfellows. But what began as a natural alliance between photography and light therapy soon became an uneasy, incestuous relationship between the visualising and therapeutic powers of light. Through the work of émigré photographer Edith Tudor-Hart, this chapter argues that light therapy was encountered and represented photographically as an obscure (literally ‘dark,’ unclear, or unknown) practice in which these light technologies do not so much converge as collide.
Chapter 5 analyses perceptions by light therapists of the suntan (pigmentation) as the external sign of stored solar energy in the body, of the body visualised as literally ‘photogenic’ (light-generating). It does so by focusing specifically on advertisements using colour to convey the glowing tans and radiant smiles of healthy mothers, thriving babies and virile men, who consume light in the battle against ‘sun-starvation.’ Both sunlight and artificial light were directed onto mothers’ malfunctioning breasts to restore lactation, onto ‘backwards’ children to correct normal brain functioning, and onto injured soldiers to disinfect and heal their fetid battle wounds. In the regeneration of these highly-valued subjects, physicians and politicians alike perceived light as an aid to national salvation. Yet in encouraging citizens to emulate the dark skins of ‘primitive’ races, they conveyed ambivalent attitudes towards the merits of suntanned skin. This chapter investigates suntan as simultaneously a visual marker of recharged health and a troubling act of racial transgression during a period of heightened eugenic fervour in Britain and Europe.
Chapter 2 questions British physicians’ conflicting perceptions towards sunburn (solar erythema) in the therapeutic process, as a physiological marker at once feared and desired during the cure. Both the visual sign of damage and therapeutic success, sunburn’s value was hotly contested amongst practitioners. This chapter tracks the ambivalent role of sunburn in the dosage standardisation of ultraviolet light through documentary photographs of c.1893-1940 that are particularly difficult to read, both literally and figuratively, beginning with a photograph of Finsen’s irradiated, sunburnt forearm - one of the earliest images, if not indeed the first, of ‘modern’ light therapy. British physicians and researchers came to convey enormous conceptual weight onto the visual production of sunburn, a phenomenon known to be visibly transient, latent and variable according to the individual, and thus a particularly uncooperative visual anchor on which to standardise exposures. The chapter argues that the very desire to ‘fix’ sunburn (to photographically record it for measurable qualitative and quantitative data), in spite of its variability, betrays deep-seated anxieties on the part of practitioners to wrestle control over light therapy as a purportedly ‘systematic’ and ‘modern’ form of medicine.
Chapter 4 focuses on risk, damage, and injury through the art and advertising of visualising invisible light’s penetrating rays. It situates ultraviolet lamps and their advertisements as modern, vanguard objects communicating ambivalent messages about risk and safety. The chapter argues that manufacturers and practitioners relied heavily on montage as a vanguard medium of representation to convey visible and invisible rays of natural and artificial light. It contextualises physicians’ use of infrared and ultraviolet rays in relation to the contemporaneous development of radiotherapy, including X rays and the beta, alpha and gamma rays of radium. Burns, lesions and skin cancers from all of these rays are investigated, as well as the similar ways in which these risky, invisible rays were visualised, ingested, and marketed. The complex relationship between these different wavelengths - sometimes perceived as allies, sometimes enemies - in the therapeutic process elucidates surprising tensions in light therapy’s past, connecting the tanning lamp to the atom bomb.