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Soaking up the Rays: the Reception of Light Therapeutics in Britain, c.1899-1938

Dr Tania Woloshyn
Wellcome Trust Research Fellow in the Medical Humanities (October 2012-March 2016)

This project explored the visual and material cultures of light therapeutics, both natural (heliotherapy) and artificial (phototherapy).

It might seem natural, even obvious, to associate sunny days with play, pleasure, and well-being, but the connection between light and health has been historically less a matter of instinct than a deeply naturalised medical perception, and one dating to the first decades of the twentieth century. During this formative period, images and texts produced by heliotherapists and phototherapists did more than merely describe light therapeutics; they actively contributed to its very definition.

As an art historian, I believe that the visual material depicting and documenting light therapeutics must be contextualised as actively contributing to its reception by the British medical profession and the public. It is vital to understanding that history. Light, both natural (heliotherapy) and artificial (phototherapy), has been, and even today continues to be, a major form of therapeutics. Nonetheless it has received only minor critical attention by medical historians. Meanwhile, the rich visual and material cultures of light therapy - photographs, illustrations, films, advertisements, paintings, and lamps - intriguingly remains unexplored, though the Wellcome Library, Science Museum, and other collections possess significant holdings of visual material and objects.

This project was particularly timely, offering significant historical contextualisation of light therapeutics at a time of intensified interest in the simultaneously curative and dangerous properties of sunlight. By tracing this early history, my goal was to contextualise historically Britain's contemporary sun-lust and so-called 'addictive' relationship with light. So too did the project seek to stimulate an interdisciplinary dialogue between the histories of medicine and art, thus contributing to wider interests in the visual culture of medicine.

Research Questions

- How was light medicalised, and how was that visualised?

- How and why did light therapeutics, both natural (heliotherapy) and artificial (phototherapy), develop in Britain?

- As new ‘natural’ cures, what roles – medical, social and political – did they play in this particular national context in the first decades of the twentieth century?

- How could something so simple – exposure to light – be considered so miraculously effective, particularly during a period of progressive, laboratory-based medicine?

- To what extent can our current medical and popular perceptions of light be traced to the early history, reception, and visual culture of light therapeutics?

And specifically in relation to the visual:

- How did the earliest imagery, objects and literature disseminate, legitimise, and contribute to the reception of light therapies as valid medical practices during their emergent years in Britain, c.1899-1938?

- How did media such as photographs, postcards, illustrations and film promote and communicate the efficacy, the enjoyment or discomfort of light therapies?

- How does that visual material expose the complexities of light therapeutics and the engagement of practitioners and patients with them?

- How did imagery function in dialogue with texts promoting and explaining the application of light therapies; were they always complementary or did they conflict in the meanings they communicated?

soaking_up_the_rays.jpg wellcome_support.jpg

For an introduction to the project, please visit the Wellcome Trust's blog for an audio slideshow presentation: