Throughout history, humanity's consistent connection of the Sun and healing is no coincidence.
From ancient times to the modern era, humans have symbolically associated “light” with “healing.” Ancient Chinese medicine emphasizes the importance of light for health and how this invisible flow of energy powers the body. In ancient Egyptian mythology, the goddess of healing, Sekhmet, is the daughter of the sun god, Ra. Similarly, in Greco-Roman culture, Apollo is both the god of healing and the god of light. In fact, the son of Apollo, Asclepius, is the Greek god of treatment. Even today, the “Rod of Asclepius” is a universally recognized symbol of medicine.
These connections do not merely exist in mythology and literature, however; they are born of the scientific observation that light can heal the body. If you were to visit a Roman hospital 2,000 years ago, you’d be met with an intriguing sight: sunlight, filtered through huge panels of red glass, streaming into hospitals to heal patients suffering from “diseases of withering.” The ancients called these specialized rooms Solariums.
Today we recognize Solariums as civilization’s first implementation of Photomedicine.
Niels Ryberg Finsen
He continued to demonstrate groundbreaking healing effects of phototherapy, proving that light therapy could be used to cure Smallpox, Lupus Vulgaris, and hundreds of other “diseases of civilization.” His work rattled the medical world, rightfully earning him the Nobel Prize in Medicine in 1903 for “opening a new avenue of medical science."
Tragically, Finsen died shortly after winning the Nobel Prize and his crucial discovery of light as a medicine fell into darkness. In the last few years of his life, Finsen was committed to making light therapy accessible to every human being, not just for curing diseases, but also as a requirement for daily health. He writes: “I believe implicitly that in the future use will be made of this new therapeutic agent [Light], and the proof experiment once made, it will be easy to carry it out practically under the form of Light Baths; and lastly, to determine whether they are to be blue, violet, or red, the variations in their strength and duration, and whether natural or artificial.” - Finsen, Phototherapy, 1896.
Now, 125 years later, we are picking up where the Father of Photomedicine left off: making light bathing accessible to every human being in the world.
NASA & Phototherapy
The National Aeronautics and Space Administration, or NASA, began experimenting with light-emitting diodes (LEDs) to grow plants in space. To the delight of the astronauts, they found that plants readily grew with the energy from these small “artificial suns,” even in space.
But what was even more remarkable was the effects LEDs had upon the astronauts themselves. They reported astonishing improvements to a number of health challenges that commonly plague humans in a zero-gravity environment: LED exposure improved bone mass, slowed muscular atrophy, and helped wounds to heal. A press release followed: “NASA scientists have found that cells exposed to near-infrared light from LEDs, which is energy just outside the visible range, grow 150 to 200 percent faster than cells not stimulated by such light.”
This rediscovery ushered in the modern era of photomedicine. At this stage of technological development, however, LEDs were extremely expensive and inefficient. As a result, photomedicine was reserved for hospitals, medical practices, and research institutions.
It would take several more decades before LED light therapy would be available to the masses.