And there was Light – Day Two

Shedding light on … Science

Dr. O. Bernhard: “Light treatment in surgery” (London, 1926) Shelfmark: 77.e.88


Centuries before the identification of SAD (seasonal affective disorder), scientists and medical professionals were convinced of the beneficial effects of sunlight on humans. As long ago as the fifth century BC, Hippocrates, the ‘Father of Medicine’ recommended sun-baths for people with symptoms of tuberculosis. Indeed, in English we have the word heliotherapy which is derived from the Greek helios (the sun) and therapeia (healing power) and the word solarium (sun room) from the Romans. The Swiss Doctor, Oscar Bernhard, founder of a clinic in St. Moritz in 1899, sent patients outdoors, sometimes almost naked, to benefit from the healing power of the sun.

Edgar Mayer: “The curative value of light: sunlight and sun lamp in health and disease” (New York; London, 1932) Shelfmark: 143.f.97

It was not until the late nineteenth century, however, that major research began into the use and benefit of artificial light in patient treatment, although lenses, sometimes coloured, had occasionally been used to direct sunlight onto wounds in the past. Far more recently, scientists have discovered that too much unprotected exposure to UV light can cause cancer.

Stuart H. Rowe: “The lighting of school-rooms” (New York, 1904) Shelfmark: 53.f.54

Of course, lack of light can be equally problematic for different reasons. In 1904, Stuart Rowe, supervising principal of a school district in Connecticut published a small but extremely detailed illustrated manual on the lighting of school-rooms, stating in his preface that ‘there is no … more excuse for a poorly lighted school-building than there is for an unsafe bridge’. Section III, entitled ‘The Teacher’s Duty’, includes the recommendation that ‘poorly lighted desks must be condemned and removed’.

Later twentieth-century texts in Special Collections cover the lighting of industrial buildings, churches, the stage and the home as well as street lighting.

William Moon, himself blind as a result of scarlet fever at the age of 21 and a teacher of blind children, created a system of raised characters based on the Latin alphabet which he considered easier to use than Braille. His 1873 book was entitled Light for the blind as his alphabet enabled people living in physical darkness to ‘see’.

In similar fashion, Robert Meldrum, another teacher of the blind, named his handbook, aimed at all who seek to be ‘eyes to the blind’, Light on dark paths. Meldrum recommends starting blind children with Moon’s alphabet; then, when they can read that with confidence, moving them on to Braille. For beginners in arithmetic, he recommends a system developed by Rev. W. Taylor.

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In 1816, Sir Humphry Davy was awarded the Royal Society’s Rumford Medal for his papers on combustion and flame which described the experiments leading to his invention of a safety lamp for use in mines and other dangerous areas. Although hand-held lights were already in use, they had open flames, which tended to explode.

Sir Humphry Davy: “On the safety lamp for preventing explosions in mines, &c.; with some researches on flame” (London, 1825) Shelfmark: RR.h.41 no.1

In contrast, an 1842 paper by the Irish scientist Sir Henry Marsh describes and tries to explain examples of sick humans giving off light shortly before their death, similar to the ‘corpse light’ occasionally seen in graveyards. He cites amongst others ‘an authentic report of this interesting phenomenon’ by Dr. Daniel Donovan of a patient in Glandore, Co. Cork, published in The Dublin Medical Press, January 15, 1840.

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