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Shedding light on this history of phototherapy

20 Jan, 2014

With the long, dark days of winter upon us, sunlight seems like a distant dream – but Wellcome Trust Research Fellow Dr Tania Woloshyn is absorbed with light. Researching the history of light therapy, she’s especially interested in the conflicting views of sunlight as either an essential ingredient for our wellbeing or as a source of damage to be avoided.

In this audio slideshow she shows us some of the fascinating images she has uncovered in her research and introduces us to the subject of light therapy.

Every winter we read stories in the press about the ‘winter blues’, seasonal affective disorder (SAD) and ‘light hunger’, with recommendations that we expose ourselves to special lamps. Every summer the papers then shift to discuss the impending risks of sunburn and suntan as explicit forms of bodily ‘damage’. We are told we need to get enough vitamin D and that rickets has ‘returned’ to the UK, while at the same time being encouraged to cover up, slop on the sun cream and avoid the midday sun.

My project, soon to be published as an open access book entitled ‘Soaking Up the Rays: the materialisation of light therapies in Britain, c. 1890-1940’, explores both artificial light therapy, known as ‘phototherapy’ or ‘actinotherapy’, and natural sun therapy, known as ‘heliotherapy’. The project offers a historical context for the confusing position we find ourselves in today with regard to sunlight.

At its zenith in the 1920s light therapy was widely accepted by the medical community and the public. And yet, I am discovering, it stood on shaky ground. Even then, reports in medical journals had begun to claim that ultraviolet light could cause skin cancer, and cases of overexposure – some fatal – led anxious physicians to cry out for regulation.

Measuring exposure became a major preoccupation in the drive to validate light therapy. Like other drugs, sunlight needed to be dosed in the right quantities to do good rather than harm. But regulating and monitoring ‘correct’ exposures for each individual, whether the sick patient or the sun-lover on holiday, have proved to be elusive goals, as much for practitioners then as is the case now for the NHS and cancer charities.

Today’s contradictory attitudes towards the sun’s rays are not new; they have existed since light therapy’s inception during the 1890s. The question ‘Is sunlight good or bad for us?’ has no simple answer – and consequently it has a truly fascinating history.

Dr Tania Anne Woloshyn

2 Comments leave one →
  1. 21 Jan, 2014 3:12 pm

    Readers may be interested to learn that ‘The recent history of SAD (Seasonal Affective Disorder)’ was the subject of a Witness seminar organised by the History of Modern Biomedicine group at QMUL just before Christmas. The meeting, chaired by Professor Sir Brian Follett, included chronobiologists, sufferers of SAD, psychiatrists and others. Also present were industry representatives involved in the manufacture of light therapy equipment. Attending from the USA were Dr Al Lewy and Dr Norman Rosenthal whose work in the 1980s pioneered the concept of SAD, an expression first used by Rosenthal in 1984. The proceedings of the meeting are being transcribed and edited, and will be published and made freely available to download from the Group’s website ( later in the year. The Group is funded by a Strategic Award from the Wellcome Trust.

  2. 22 Jan, 2014 3:29 pm

    Very interesting. Thanks for sharing! I’ve come across a lot of records about light therapy here at The Children’s Society, especially in relation to children’s homes that were set up to care for children with diseases like turberculosis and rickets. Both sunlight therapy and artificial light therapy were used over the years. See this 1928 photo of children receiving sunlight therapy at St Martin’s Home in Pyrford, Surrey, as an example:

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