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Soaking up the sun’s rays

July 12, 2014

Light therapeutics and the belief in a healthy tan – by Tania Anne Woloshyn

In a 1936 leaflet, a ‘Vi-Tan’ UV-rich mercury vapour lamp shines down on a jubilant woman. She is dressed for the beach but wrapped in an electrical cord. The manufacturers of the device, the Thermal Syndicate Ltd, promise that their UV lamp would bring “summer in winter” to the “sun starved, restoring everyone to a healthy colour”. Like the woman’s smiling face and her swimsuit body displaying delectable contours, the promise was that everyone could have a deeply tanned body. Through an overtly contrived composition, the Vi-Tan acted as the technologically advanced substitute for a radiant and radiating sun. The lamp was thus stationed in the advertising as though taking its ‘natural’ place, embedded within the sun itself.

Vi-Tan leaflet, 1936. Wellcome Library

Vi-Tan leaflet, 1936. Wellcome Library

I am exploring the reception of a whole range of light therapeutics in Britain from the turn of the 20th century until just before World War II (1899–1938). The overall aim of the three-year research project is to investigate light therapy, through not just its literature but its images and objects: photographs, posters, postcards, illustrations, films, goggles, and sun lamps too.

‘Reception’ here works in two ways. First, it refers to the reception of heliotherapy (natural sun therapy) and phototherapy (artificial light therapy) among the medical community and the general public. I will be looking at their early development as new therapies, their acceptance or validation, and their visual, material and textual dissemination. But I also use the term ‘reception’ to think about the physical ‘taking on’ or ‘taking in’ of light therapies by bodies themselves as receptacles of light – the eyes and skin photosensitive organs not unlike a camera. This notion of receptivity ultimately is bound to perceptions of light, and especially the light of the sun, as generative or regenerative, as active and activating, and as transformative in its powers.

Whether then we do or do not need the sun to live and thrive is not my main focus. As a historian, I recognise that a basic belief in our supposedly natural and naturally beneficial relationship with sunlight has driven the production of a wide range of primary research material, visual and verbal. This has in turn validated and legitimised a therapeutic investment in light. Ever present in my research approach is an understanding that our relationship with sunlight is not instinctive but historically constructed and deeply embedded within contemporary popular culture. It affects our views on the weather and our desire for sunny holidays abroad, and it is linked, above all, with wellbeing and rejuvenation – our belief that a tan, whether naturally or artificially produced, denotes health and beauty. All this has come about despite the best efforts of physicians and dermatologists. Cancer Research UK likewise has been at the vanguard of skincare health initiatives which stress UV’s ageing effects. Its recent campaign – ‘R UV Ugly?’ – is one of the best examples of a concerted medical effort to expose UV’s links to skin cancers.

In April–June 2013 a rich and diverse range of historical material was brought together in a public exhibition, Irradiating the Sun-Starved: Light therapies in Britain, c.1900–1940, on display at the Modern Records Centre, University of Warwick. It highlighted the complex relationship between heliotherapy and phototherapy, their varying methods and dosages, their apparel and advertising. These were intertwined with distinct but closely related medical humanities topics like the history of naturism and the history of medical technology. This public event was one of several ways I am disseminating my research while resisting the seduction of writing a narrow, linear narrative of the British history of light therapies.

Just as the Vi-Tan leaflet confounds a simple reading of what constituted ‘natural’ exposure to light in the 1930s, I want to complicate perceptions about the history of light therapies. Doing so is vital to achieving a fuller account of both that history and our ongoing ambivalent relationship with sunlight today.

Dr Tania Anne Woloshyn is a Wellcome Trust Postdoctoral Fellow at the University of Warwick. She welcomes enquiries from anyone interested in UV home technology and light therapeutics (t.woloshyn@warwick.ac.uk). Find out more about her project.

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