March 1927, and Sheffield’s first Sun-Ray Centre opened at the Imperial Rooms, on Pinstone Street, used for the treatment of nerve disorders, rheumatism, rheumatoid arthritis, neuritis, sciatica, lumbago, neurasthenia, insomnia and anaemia.
It might seem strange in this day of sun-bed shops and tanning parlours that such excitement was created by the opening of Dr Mark Turner’s Sun-Ray Centre.
But the difference between sun-ray treatment and modern-day sunbeds is completely different.
Sun-ray treatment was seen as a cure for ailments, with Sir George Newman, Chief Medical Officer at the Ministry of Health, proclaiming it “as one of the five great discoveries in medicine in the last two generations.”
Bodies consumed therapeutic light in one of two ways: outdoors in the natural sunshine, or indoors with artificial, electrical substitutes, known variously as phototherapy, artificial sunlight therapy, ray therapy, or actinotherapy. The latter method commonly used carbon arc, tungsten arc, or mercury vapour lamps, which produced different outputs of infrared, visible, and ultraviolet rays. Most prized among these was the ultraviolet. Referred to as ‘chemical’ or ‘actinic’ rays – notably for their use in photography – the ultraviolet rays were understood to disinfect and heal lesions and wounds by virtue of being bactericidal; to regenerate blood by increasing phosphorus, calcium, and haemoglobin levels; and to stimulate the production of vitamin D, the ‘sunshine vitamin’.
Niels Finsen, a Faroese-Danish physician who had grown up in the dim light of the North Atlantic, was fascinated by the link between sun exposure and health. He noticed that ultraviolet light could apparently kill bacteria. In the 1890s he designed the Finsen Light, a powerful electric lamp which proved effective in treating lupus vulgaris, a skin disease caused by tuberculosis bacteria.
Hearing of his work, Queen Alexandra, a fellow Dane, provided “the first Finsen lamp in Great Britain” to a hospital.
In 1903, Finsen was awarded the Nobel Prize in medicine and physiology for his work on phototherapy.
Dr Mark Turner arrived in Sheffield after setting up similar establishments at Nottingham, Lincoln and Derby. And with him came plaudits and recommendations from former patients:
“Dear Mr Turner. You will be pleased to know that I walked up and down the dining room without the aid of sticks yesterday, this after only six treatments.”
“I’m much better, so much better after suffering from Rheumatoid Arthritis, I can’t tell you what I feel like, but just watch me walk.”
“Well, it does one good to see what a wonderful improvement there is in us all; no wonder we look so bright and happy.”
Sheffield newspapers were full of stories from grateful patients, but one suspects the column inches were paid for by Dr Turner.
A month later, the Sheffield Daily Telegraph reported:
“A sensation awaited those who watched the arrival of Mrs Hannah Lindsay, of Wolseley Road, at the Sun-Ray Centre for Private Patients in Pinstone Street.
“Mrs Lindsay electrified the onlookers by walking from her car to the Treatment Rooms, instead of being carried in the hospital chair as formerly.
“A murmur of applause greeted her arrival, some of the bystanders had had the opportunity of witnessing her former visits and were enthusiastic at what they saw.
For sixteen years she had suffered from Rheumatoid Arthritis so severely as to make walking impossible, now she is really walking.”
The promotion of actinotherapy received its greatest boost in December 1928, when it was used on King George V, who was ill with pneumonia: “the ray therapy treatment would be used as a new method of attack in the difficult struggle which the doctors are waging . . . The new treatment may act as a tonic and increase the bacterial power of the blood.”
By 1928, light therapy had reached its zenith in popularity, both among the public and the medical profession. Although almost 200 clinics existed in England at this time, it was unregulated and incredibly expensive.
And, some medical professionals continued to have reservations about the treatments. A 1930 meeting at the British Medical Council discussed experiments by the Medical Research Council which found ultraviolet rays “to be no more effective than a mustard plaster”.
Despite the accolades, Dr Turner’s Sun-Ray Centre appears to have been short-lived and within a couple of years had disappeared.
For much of the first half of the twentieth century, phototherapy or “sun ray” therapy was prescribed by hospitals for children for a wide range of maladies, from chest infections to anaemia. At the same time, concerns mounted over the link between exposure to ultraviolet light and skin cancer.
By the 1960s, antibiotics and alternative treatments rendered sun ray therapy obsolete for most purposes. Targeted ultraviolet light is still used today for some skin disorders, and other types of non-ultraviolet light treatments are used to treat mood and sleep disorders.