Enter the WABAC: UV Light Therapy


Join me on this journey as I travel throughout time to explore humans in regard to health, food, and training. Sometimes good, mostly bad, but always entertaining.

Next up on our journey in the WABAC machine we travel to the days (as early as 1933 to be exact) when people prescribed sun ray treatment to help fix ailments. This is something that should be brought back into popularity as they had it right with this one!

“The treatment of some diseases by exposure of the skin to the action of light, natural or artificial, has in a marvelously short space of time leaped from the obscure position of a somewhat contemptuously neglected specific to the status of one of the most valued and even invaluable weapons in the medical armoury.” The Orientation of Buildings (London: Royal Institute of British Architects (1933)

1928-1948
Artificial sun for children
It might cure their vitamin deficiency. Or it might cause cancer.
Alex Q. Arbuckle

Children receive sun ray treatment at a health center in Bristol England 1948
Image: Children receive sun ray treatment at a health center in Bristol, England. (1948)

Exposure to sunlight has been prescribed for medicinal and therapeutic purposes since ancient times, across Western and Eastern cultures.

For instance, in many European cities following the Industrial Revolution, air pollution was so thick that natural sunlight was hard to come by.

Niels Finsen, a Faroese-Danish physician who had grown up in the dim light of the North Atlantic, was fascinated by the link between sun exposure and health. He noticed that ultraviolet light could apparently kill bacteria. In the 1890s he designed the Finsen Light, a powerful electric lamp which proved effective in treating lupus vulgaris, a skin disease caused by tuberculosis bacteria.

In 1903, Finsen was awarded the Nobel Prize in medicine and physiology for his work on phototherapy.

For much of the first half of the twentieth century, phototherapy or “sun ray” therapy was prescribed for children for a wide range of maladies, from chest infections to anemia. At the same time, concerns mounted over the link between exposure to ultraviolet light and skin cancer.

By the 1960s, antibiotics and alternative treatments rendered sun ray therapy obsolete for most purposes. Targeted ultraviolet light is still used today for some skin disorders, and other types of non-ultraviolet light treatments are used to treat mood and sleep disorders.

Recently, some of the people who were subjected to weekly sun ray treatments as children have reported diagnoses of basal cell carcinoma. Though a direct causal link between sun ray treatment as a child and cancer as an adult is impossible to establish, the American Cancer Society lists exposure to ultraviolet light as the primary risk factor for skin cancers.

UV Light Therapy at Cheyne Hospital for Children in London 1928
Image: UV Light Therapy at Cheyne Hospital for Children in London. (1928)

“A nurse would perch us all on small wooden chairs facing the lamp. The lamp was turned on, and we would sit there for what seemed like a long time.” Alison Lawlor

Children are given artificial sunlight treatment to help combat tuberculosis at the Belgrave Hospital for Children in London 1928
Image: Children are given artificial sunlight treatment to help combat tuberculosis at the Belgrave Hospital for Children in London. (1928)
UV Light Therapy 1929
Image: UV Light Therapy (c. 1929)
Children receive sun ray therapy on an artificial beach next to a Christmas tree at an institution in Paris December 1929
Image: Children receive sun ray therapy on an artificial beach next to a Christmas tree at an institution in Paris (December, 1929)
Children of working mothers receive ultraviolet light treatments at a nursery in Berlin 1930
Image: Children of working mothers receive ultraviolet light treatments at a nursery in Berlin (c. 1930)

“I remember the lovely warm feeling of the purple light on my skin.” Alison Lawlor

Children listen to a gramophone during sun ray treatment at the East End Mission in London 1931
Image: Children listen to a gramophone during sun ray treatment at the East End Mission in London. (1931)
UV Light Therapy 1935
Image: UV Light Therapy (c. 1935)
UV Light Therapy 1938
Image: UV Light Therapy (1938)
UV Light Therapy c. 1938
Image: UV Light Therapy (c. 1938)
Children undergo sun ray treatment at the Open Air School for Delicate Children in Manchester England 1939
Image: Children undergo sun ray treatment at the Open Air School for Delicate Children in Manchester, England. (1939)

“As I pulled my clothes back on afterwards, my skin felt warm, tingly and pink and there were marks around my eyes where the goggles had been.” Alison Lawlor

Children receive sun ray therapy to make up for the deficiency in sunlight and the lack of certain items of food, such as fruit, during the winter months of World War II March 2 1942
Image: Children receive sun ray therapy to make up for the deficiency in sunlight and the lack of certain items of food, such as fruit, during the winter months of World War II. (March 2, 1942)

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