Health cure in the Institut Finsen, Copenhagen, Denmark. Patients getting treatment with electric light. 1900s.

Health cure in the Institut Finsen, Copenhagen, Denmark. Patients getting treatment with electric light. 1900s.

The first therapeutic uses of light (so called light therapy) date back to the end of the twentieth century, when a Danish researcher, Niels Ryberg Finsen, showed that light stimulates the immune defenses and enables the fight against infections. The treatment had two branches: heliotherapy (natural sun therapy) and phototherapy (artificial light therapy). These progressive therapies presented and sold light as curative and transformative.

From the late 1800s, light therapy – sometimes called phototherapy – became a key part of certain treatment regimes for tuberculosis, notably tuberculosis of the bones, joints and skin, as prolonged exposure to sunlight can kill the bacteria which cause the disease. Infected children who were sent out to special homes and hospital retreats were encouraged to spend as much time outdoors as possible. These children had often come from dark and dingy city slums and exposing their skin to sunshine raised their levels of vitamin D, which also helped them fight the bacteria.

As sunlight is not available at all times, artificial alternatives were developed that could mimic the Sun’s beneficial effects. The Finsen lamp, invented by Danish Faroese physician Niels Ryberg Finsen, is perhaps the best-known example. An ultraviolet lamp, it allowed flexible treatment in all seasons and its rays could be concentrated onto the most affected parts of a patient’s body. Its greatest success was in the treatment of lupus – tuberculosis of the skin – for which Finsen was awarded a Nobel Prize in 1903.

Sun therapy (heliotherapy) was very popular in Europe from around the turn of the century until the late 1930s. One of its foremost practitioners was Dr Auguste Rollier who established a sun-therapy clinic in Leysin in the Swiss Alps. He treated all sorts of patients, very effectively, particularly those with TB – his patients would be wheeled out onto a large sundeck for specific periods each day.

In the 1930s, Charing Cross Hospital in London used ‘sun-lamps’ to treat circulatory diseases, anaemia, varicose veins, heart disease and degenerative disorders. Then in the early 1940s in the United States, Emmitt Knott developed a very interesting device – a haemoirradiation machine. Knott found that irradiation of just 50±100cc of blood with ultra-violet light and retransfusion back into the patient had a dramatic impact in the treatment of puerperal sepsis, peritonitis, encephalitis, polio and herpes simplex. By 1947, somewhere in the region of 80 000 patients had been treated with reported success rates of 50-80%.

The light therapy practice is now treated with much greater caution (as it should be): overexposure to ultraviolet light over a long period of time can lead to melanoma and other skin cancers.

A woman inspects an Electric Bath at the Light Care Institute. The Electric Bath is probably a forerunner of the modern sunbed, although it was more likely used for medicinal reasons. Circa 1900.

A woman inspects an Electric Bath at the Light Care Institute. The Electric Bath is probably a forerunner of the modern sunbed, although it was more likely used for medicinal reasons. Circa 1900.

A woman inside an Electric Bath at the Light Care Institute. Circa 1900.

A woman inside an Electric Bath at the Light Care Institute. Circa 1900.

Health cure in the Institut Finsen, Copenhagen, Denmark.

Health cure in the Institut Finsen, Copenhagen, Denmark.

Electric Bath as used on The Titanic (1912).

Electric Bath as used on The Titanic (1912).

Patients receiving treatment in the Electrical Department of St George’s Hospital, Hyde Park Corner, London. 1921.

Patients receiving treatment in the Electrical Department of St George’s Hospital, Hyde Park Corner, London. 1921.

A child receiving treatment under an artificial sun lamp.

A child receiving treatment under an artificial sun lamp.

A woman under a sunray lamp, on show at the first International Exhibition of Light and Heat in Medicine at Central Hall, Westminster. 1927.

A woman under a sunray lamp, on show at the first International Exhibition of Light and Heat in Medicine at Central Hall, Westminster. 1927.

American comedienne Florence Mills basks in the glow of a sun lamp in her dressing room. 1925.

American comedienne Florence Mills basks in the glow of a sun lamp in her dressing room. 1925.

A child wearing goggles and held by a nurse, undergoes sun-ray treatment at Cheyne Hospital for Children, Chelsea. 1928.

A child wearing goggles and held by a nurse, undergoes sun-ray treatment at Cheyne Hospital for Children, Chelsea. 1928.

23 year old Alma Smith, the ‘cleverest soubrette’ of the cast of ‘Blackbirds’ at the London Pavilion, receiving her daily dose of ultra violet rays from a sun machine. 1929.

23 year old Alma Smith, the ‘cleverest soubrette’ of the cast of ‘Blackbirds’ at the London Pavilion, receiving her daily dose of ultra violet rays from a sun machine. 1929.

Northampton Town Football Club trainer fits the team captain, W Watson, with some goggles for a course of ultra-violet ray treatment in preparation for an FA Cup tie with Millwall. 1929.

Northampton Town Football Club trainer fits the team captain, W Watson, with some goggles for a course of ultra-violet ray treatment in preparation for an FA Cup tie with Millwall. 1929.

Wearing only a towel and dark goggles a man enjoys the benefits of a sun-ray lamp.

Wearing only a towel and dark goggles a man enjoys the benefits of a sun-ray lamp.

Hollywood film star, Dorothy Sebastian (1903 – 1957) undergoing treatment for bronchial congestion with a sun-ray lamp at MGM studios. 1930.

Hollywood film star, Dorothy Sebastian (1903 – 1957) undergoing treatment for bronchial congestion with a sun-ray lamp at MGM studios. 1930.

Stripped to the waist and wearing goggles, children sit round a lamp having sun ray treatment while they listen to the gramophone at the East End Mission in Commercial Rd, London. 1931.

Stripped to the waist and wearing goggles, children sit round a lamp having sun ray treatment while they listen to the gramophone at the East End Mission in Commercial Rd, London. 1931.

Members of Arsenal Football team have sunlight treatment. 1931.

Members of Arsenal Football team have sunlight treatment. 1931.

A group of children hold hands around a radiating glow of ultraviolet light at the Institute of Ray Therapy.

A group of children hold hands around a radiating glow of ultraviolet light at the Institute of Ray Therapy.

 group of ladies relax on the sandy floor in the solarium of the Tolland Hotel, Bournemouth. 1930.

group of ladies relax on the sandy floor in the solarium of the Tolland Hotel, Bournemouth. 1930.

Using an infra-red ray lamp to cure skin complaints. 1932.

Using an infra-red ray lamp to cure skin complaints. 1932.

Sunray ‘treatment’, 20 February, 1932. These women, all Metropole Cinema attendants.

Sunray ‘treatment’, 20 February, 1932. These women, all Metropole Cinema attendants.

A nurse handing a towel to a woman on a sunbed. 1934.

A nurse handing a towel to a woman on a sunbed. 1934.

Picture taken in 1938.

Picture taken in 1938.

 piglet which is being treated by the PDSA (People’s Dispensary for Animals) in Ilford with a sun ray lamp, to cure a skin ailment. 1938.

piglet which is being treated by the PDSA (People’s Dispensary for Animals) in Ilford with a sun ray lamp, to cure a skin ailment. 1938.

Children receiving ray treatment at the child welfare centre in Harrow Road, West London. 1938..

Children receiving ray treatment at the child welfare centre in Harrow Road, West London. 1938..

Three nurses and a group of young children sitting around a Centrosol sunray lamp at the Miriam Price Coleman day nursery. 1938.

Three nurses and a group of young children sitting around a Centrosol sunray lamp at the Miriam Price Coleman day nursery. 1938.

Children undergoing sunray treatment at Manchester’s Open Air School for Delicate Children. 1939.

Children undergoing sunray treatment at Manchester’s Open Air School for Delicate Children. 1939.

Two crew members of a British submarine spend a session under a sunlamp whilst ashore, to make up for the time they spend below the surface without being subjected to sunlight. 1940.

Two crew members of a British submarine spend a session under a sunlamp whilst ashore, to make up for the time they spend below the surface without being subjected to sunlight. 1940.

An RAF Flying Officer receiving Sun-Ray and electrical treatment after suffering a broken back. 1941.

An RAF Flying Officer receiving Sun-Ray and electrical treatment after suffering a broken back. 1941.

A nurse watching over children in Bermondsey, London, sitting under sun-ray lamps to help make up the deficiency in sunlight and the lack of certain items of food, such as fruit, during the winter months of the Second World War. 1942.

A nurse watching over children in Bermondsey, London, sitting under sun-ray lamps to help make up the deficiency in sunlight and the lack of certain items of food, such as fruit, during the winter months of the Second World War. 1942.

Children from Bermondsey London playing in artificial sunlight in a solarium with a sunlamp providing the ‘sunshine’. 1942.

Children from Bermondsey London playing in artificial sunlight in a solarium with a sunlamp providing the ‘sunshine’. 1942.

Under the guidance of a qualified Therapist miners receive a dose of ultra violet and infra red rays from special lamps set up in this solarium, December 1947.

Under the guidance of a qualified Therapist miners receive a dose of ultra violet and infra red rays from special lamps set up in this solarium, December 1947.

Two men wearing protective eye goggles and towels sitting under sunlamps set up by a doctor. 1950.

Two men wearing protective eye goggles and towels sitting under sunlamps set up by a doctor. 1950.

(Photo credit: Fox Photos / Hulton Archive / Getty Images).