He may resemble some overblown bourgeois Humpty Dumpty, but in J.M. Andress and W.A. Evans' 1925 children's hygiene handbook, Success and Health, "Doctor Sun" (Fig.1) is promi-nently promoted as the wise choice of a family physician with very real sincerity. With his smil-ing face, radiating luminous rays, and open gesture, he welcomes the viewer to his domain, where in the background children dance and play. Here health and happiness are shown as one and the same.
Nor is this a unique representation of the sun as doctor. A Cannes physician, Dr J. Orgeas, for example stated as early as 1889:
Just as the sun is the principal of all life, so it is the source of all healing. It is the Sun, and uniquely the Sun, that sick people seek in winter on our coast. It is the Great Doctor, Doctor of the Faculty of the Sky, to whom the suffering come to demand a cure for their ills.
It might seem natural, even obvious, to associate sunny days with play, pleasure, and well-being. But the connection between sunshine and health has been historically less a matter of instinct than a deeply naturalised therapeutic practice, and one especially dating to the turn of the twentieth century. This is the subject of the exhibition, "Our Friend, the Sun: Images of Light Therapeutics from the Osler Library Collection, c.1901-1944" (the Osler Library of the History of Medicine, McGill University, January-June 2011).
The development of light therapeutics is a little-explored dimension in the history of medicine. The following exhibition presents an international visual culture of light therapies during the early twentieth century, considering both natural light – cure by sunlight or heliotherapy – and artificial light – cure by electrically manufactured light or phototherapy. Heliotherapy, an an-cient practice of total bodily exposure to sunlight, and phototherapy, pioneered by Niels Ryberg Finsen in the 1890s, were considered to be revolutionary therapies by c.1900 for sufferers of pulmonary tuberculosis, smallpox, and lupus, as well as chronic conditions such as arthritis.
The exhibition features in particular the work of four physicians: John Harvey Kellogg (1852-1943); Auguste Rollier (1874-1954); Albert Monteuuis (fl.1900-1914); and Niels Ryberg Finsen (1860-1904). American, Swiss, French, and Danish, respectively, these four physicians knew of each other's work and, in some cases, visited each other's facilities, indicating that light thera-peutics was an international field. Kellogg and Finsen also individually experimented with both heliotherapy and phototherapy, evidence that the two were far from antithetical treatments or chronologically separated. Indeed, while Finsen may have begun experimenting with natural light in the outdoors initially during the 1890s (soon abandoning this entirely for artificial elec-tric light), Kellogg would use both simultaneously, and Rollier continued to utilise natural light from the turn of the century to the Second World War, having never converted to artificial means. Therefore while the exhibition is divided into two halves, heliotherapy (the two left cases) and phototherapy (the two right cases), significant cross-over occurred between the two – in their historical developments, in their visual cultures, in their methods, and in the shared scientific beliefs driving them as therapies.
Significantly, these physicians asserted the ancient, quasi-magical origins of light therapeutics at the same time as they advocated it as a "modern" therapeutic of sound scientific rationale. So too did they posit it as a welcome, pleasurable and comfortable experience while simultane-ously including photographs of patients strapped down, exposed to the sun almost nude in win-ter, or subjected to gun-like electric machines. Themes of natural and artificial, ancient and modern, and pleasurable and painful within the history and visual culture of light therapeutics illuminate this exhibition of rare illustrated texts and objects from the Osler Library collection. It also considers how heliotherapeutic and phototherapeutic practices were disseminated and popularized by that visual culture.
The historical relationship between sunlight and health in modern Western cultures has only begun to be explored, and yet is fundamental to contextualizing current debates in the medical and popular press on the benefits and risks of light exposure, particularly regarding skin can-cers. This research is also valuable at a time of increasing public concern over the impact of cli-mate change. You, the viewer and visitor, are especially invited to add your comments and thoughts, even your own personal experiences of the sunshine, in the Visitors' Book.