UV rays at school: a strange Soviet practice that started in Britain

You're at school and it's recess time, but instead of grabbing your sandwich and going outside, what you grab are sunglasses, you put them on, and you undress. All your colleagues undress and you stand in front of a huge UV lamp. They turn off the light, turn on the lamp. You stay there, in your underwear, for minutes, without playing, without talking, concentrating on the vitamin D that your body is absorbing, Although you do not understand much what vitamin D is. This was the day-to-day in Soviet schools for decades, and some of the images that show it travel the networks today generating amazement and curiosity. Why didn't the kids just go out to sunbathe? What kind of practice was it and what has happened to it?

The photographs, collected by the National Geographic documentation center, may seem to our eyes those of a horror movie or some chapter of a kind of 'Black Mirror' about the past. Nothing is further from reality. It's about light therapy, and it was around, and was popular, very popular for years.

To get started, the climate context of Russia must be situated. If you think about this country, the combo of sun, heat and beach will not come to mind. There you have the key. All three elements exist, of course, but Russia is not exactly characterized by them. The cold and scarce natural light has determined its population for centuries, and with it the activities and way of life that people lead. However, this is not enough to frame the meaning of the images of girls and boys literally absorbing light in closed rooms. A historical context is required.

Medicine was also industrializing

If you are thinking of it as a completely strange and distant experience, you are wrong. This medical practice, in addition to being real, did not begin in Russia but in the United Kingdom, and it soon spread to other parts of the world at the beginning of the 20th century, becoming popular in the first two decades of the century. As Louise Atkinson points out in a lengthy report for ‘Daily Mail’, “post-World War II 'sun therapy' was largely advocated across the UK as an antidote to everything, from throat infections to acne ”.

Let's position ourselves. First half of the century, the established foundations of an industrialist system were developing without stopping. Medicine was also industrializing, the machine was progress, it was everything. Suddenly, a British doctor, Sir. Edward Mellanby, discovers vitamin D in 1918, experimenting with dogs, inducing deficiencies and then curing them by administering cod liver. Welcome nutritional supplements.

By then, numerous symptoms and pathologies had been related to nutritional deficiencies and specific environmental restrictions. This was nothing new. Despite this, no one seemed to be in the business of spinning both variables: your social class, your economic situation and your development space determine your health.

Source: Manchester University Press Open Access Content

An "English disease"

The lack of sunlight has many effects on the human body, but one of them worried the scientific community for decades. In fact, it had done it before, for centuries, although science had not been able to find out the direct relationship between this deficit and the so-called rickets: flattened head, enlarged fontanelles, bones that curve (especially the longest of the body, causing other ailments due to lack of balance). In short, a myriad of deformities in the arms, hips and legs that cause the person to stop growing, but the bones continue to bend and the chest fills with bulges. Since there are medical records, rickets has been present in societies, even beyond the writings of this type, it is also collected in art, from literature to painting.

However, the knowledge about what was happening in those people who suffered from it did not begin to take shape until the year 1645, with the publication of a treatise by David Whistler called "De morbo puerile anglorum" ("On the illness of English children"). Then the real debate began. They were thus arising theories and proposals to combat what was already known as the "English disease" and that it affected thousands of children. In the same way, experimentalist approaches began to appear, including Mellanby's.

Source: Manchester University Press Open Access Content

According to the University of Manchester, a supplement to 'The Times' published in 1928 was dedicated to the relationship between light and health. It was "a fascinating, even confusing set of images that both explained and fueled popular interest in the therapeutic value of light." It was nothing more than the reflection of overwhelming support for the light as a "panacea" to improve national health. In 1928, this practice reached its zenith of public praise. However, according to the institution, light therapy was invented in the 1890s by the doctor Niels Finsen, a Danish Nobel laureate, who would have treated Queen Alexandra this way; and this, satisfied, institutionalized it in Great Britain.

From disappearance in England to roots in Russia

The press of the moment shows the "boom" that during the happy twenties reached the concern of parents because their children could fall ill because they did not get enough sunlight. That worry turned into a kind of collective consciousness, but it didn't last long. In 1927, Dora Colebrook had carried out an extensive study in which she analyzed the application of light about the myriad of health problems for which it was being prescribed, and found no noteworthy effect for the majority. That marked, in one way or another, the path of disappearance out of focus as clinical practice, but not immediately or everywhere.

As reflected in a study on Russian medical publications prepared by British researchers Charlotte Kühlbrandt and Martin McKee and published in the scientific journal 'Journal of the Royal Society of Medicine', if by the beginning of the second half of the century, after World War II , In England and other European countries where light therapy had arrived, it was only given in specific cases, the practice did not stop growing and taking root in Soviet Russia, where even in the eighties there were a large number of cases of minors with malformations and rickets.

"While pharmaceutical companies and vitamin supplements in capsule or pill form grew in the West, Russia stood out for other types of infrastructures, those of industrial production"

Proof of this are precisely the color images that appear on the networks (and that you can see at the beginning of the article), some of them taken by photographers Joe McNally and Dean Conger for National Geographic and others made by Wally McNamee included in the catalog from Getty. In the first case, the images were taken in locations in Russian Lapland, hence the need to also resort to climatic logic to understand them. For the second case, dated 1987 in the Russian town of Stavropol, in the southwest of the country and near the border with Georgia, the original captions indicated that it was a “phototherapy treatment in a school with the aim of reducing the effects of the long dark Russian winter ”.

Why did the light become so entrenched in Russia? While pharmaceutical companies and vitamin supplements in capsule or pill form grew in the West, Russia stood out for other types of infrastructures, those of industrial production. Electricity played a central role in the ideological imaginary of the USSR. In addition, their health system was based on the preventive approach, thus they began to be manufactured UV lamps and lamps for children and adults which are still used in some areas today.