Soaking in the sun

Elena Conis gives an account of the rise and fall of sunlight therapy:

Sun-tanned skin may be in vogue now, but for thousands of years it was a thing to be avoided. The wealthy in many northern countries went to great lengths to keep their complexions fair, tanned skin being a sign of poverty.


In the late 1700s, a French doctor noticed that his patients’ leg sores healed faster when exposed to the sun. Not much came of this finding until a Danish doctor saw something similar a century later. Niels Finsen noted that his sluggishness was cured with a little dose of sunlight. Later, he showed that solar radiation could help treat smallpox, lupus and tuberculosis.

But heliotherapy (helios in Greek means sun) didn’t become popular until a Swiss doctor, Auguste Rollier, began championing it in the early 1900s. Rollier opened solaria — buildings designed to optimise solar exposure — throughout Switzerland. Soon the buildings were mimicked across Europe.

When patients, most of whom had tuberculosis, arrived at his solaria, they first had to adjust to the altitude (his clinics were in the mountains) and then to the cool air. Once acclimated, they were slowly exposed to the sun. Patients were rolled onto sun-drenched, open-air balconies, wearing loincloths and covered with white sheets from head to toe. Just their feet peeked out for five minutes on the first day. On day two, the sheets were pulled a little higher, and the patients were left in the sun a little more. By day five, only the patients’ heads were covered, their bodies left to soak up the sun for more than an hour. After a few weeks, the patients were very tan — and hopefully healthier.

Soon doctors across Europe were touting heliotherapy as a treatment for tuberculosis and lupus, cuts and scrapes, burns, arthritis, rheumatism and nerve damage. The German military even opened sun-hospitals for its soldiers during World War I.

Researchers showed that sunlight could kill many disease-causing bacteria and UV light could cure rickets, a bone disease caused by vitamin D deficiency.

But by World War II, the sun craze had gradually tempered. Newly discovered antibiotics proved to be more powerful against germs. And doctors also observed that too much sun did more harm than good.

That observation, however, wasn’t new. Sir Henry Gauvain of Britain seemed to foresee it way back in 1922. Sunlight, he wrote, is “like a good champagne. It invigorates and stimulates; indulged in to excess, it intoxicates and poisons.”

Source:The Telegraph (Kolkata,India)

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