Virtually all the major civilizations recognized the importance of light in healing. The Assyrians, Babylonians and Egyptians all practised therapeutic sun-bathing. The Greek city of Heliopolis (which means 'City of the Sun') was renowned for its healing temples and light rooms. The windows were covered with specially dyed cloths and the different colors were believed to have different healing powers.

In more recent times, Augustus Pleasanton used blue light in 1876 to stimulate secretory glands and the nervous system; he found it to be very effective in treating a variety of diseases, especially those accompanied by pain. A couple of years later, in 1878, Edwin Babbitt published The Principles of Light and Color. He developed the Chromodisc for treating patients with specific colors and also Solar Elixirs, made by irradiating water with sunlight and filtering it with special filters. He found that the 'sensitized' water had special healing properties - solar tinctures are still manufactured today and used very effectively by color therapists.

During the 1890s, ultra-violet was discovered to have a powerful anti-bacterial action. In 1903 a Dane, Neils Finsen, was awarded the Nobel Prize for his work in treating skin tuberculosis with ultra-violet light. In 1920 Dinshah Ghadiali, an Indian, developed the Spectro-Chrome system of healing, after 23 years of exhaustive scientific evaluation. This was based on the relationship between colors and specific areas of the body. One of his most vocal supporters was the Chief Surgeon at Philadelphia Woman's Hospital, Dr Kate Baldwin. She used Dinshah's methods for many years and is quoted as saying "...after nearly 37 years of active hospital and private practice in medicine and surgery, I can produce quicker and more accurate results with colors than with any or all other methods combined - and with less strain on the patient...".

While Dinshah was focusing on applying light directly to the body, Harry Riley Spitler was looking at treating the body by way of the eyes. During the 1920s and 1930s he developed the principles of syntonics (from the word 'syntony' - to bring into balance) in which light is used to balance the sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems. His College of Syntonic Optometry is now at the forefront of developments in ocular phototherapy. Spitler is generally considered to be the father of colored light phototherapy.

Sun therapy (heliotherapy) was very popular in Europe from around the turn of the century until the late 1930s. One of its foremost practitioners was Dr Auguste Rollier who established a sun-therapy clinic in Leysin in the Swiss Alps. He treated all sorts of patients, very effectively, particularly those with TB - his patients would be wheeled out onto a large sundeck for specific periods each day.

In the 1930s, Charing Cross Hospital in London used 'sun-lamps' to treat circulatory diseases, anaemia, varicose veins, heart disease and degenerative disorders. Then in the early 1940s in the USA, Emmitt Knott developed a very interesting device - a haemoirradiation machine. He went a stage further than Dinshah and Spitler and administered light to the whole body by irradiating just a small volume of blood.

Knott found that irradiation of just 50100cc of blood with ultra-violet light and retransfusion back into the patient had a dramatic impact in the treatment of puerperal sepsis, peritonitis, encephalitis, polio and herpes simplex. By 1947, somewhere in the region of 80 000 patients had been treated with reported success rates of 50-80%.

But then the trail runs cold. ...the era of antibiotics was ushered in after World War2 and the iron grip of the pharmaceutical industry took hold. In the USA, non-drug treatment strategies were increasingly outlawed - by the sponsors of the American Medical Association! The age of the clinical trial had arrived. Treatments that could not be supported by 'scientific' fact were immediately suspect and out went homoeopathy, naturopathy and light therapy.

We pick the trail up again, outside the reach of the tentacles of the FDA (the US Food & Drug Administration, responsible for the approval of medicines) with John Ott, who was a banker with a passion for time-lapse photography. He turned his hobby into a full time investigation of the ecology of light and demonstrated, unequivocally, that different wavelengths of light have specific influences on cellular function in both plants and animals. He coined the term 'mal-illumination' and suggested that we may be subjecting ourselves to this by spending so much of our time under artificial lights - rather like a poor diet leads to malnutrition. Ott helped develop the first 'full-spectrum' fluorescent tube and in the early 1970s undertook a study on the effects of 'full-spectrum' light on school children. Behaviour and academic performance improved markedly. This work was further developed by Fritz Hollwich in Germany, who discovered significantly increased levels of stress hormones (ACTH & cortisol) in people working under artificial 'cool-white' tubes. Further to his findings, 'cool-white' fluorescent tubes are now banned in German medical establishments. In Canada, in the early 1980s, Harry Wohlfarth took things a step further by validating Hollwich's findings and examining the effects of different colors on classroom performance.

With light therapy driven underground in the USA, the time was ripe for some KGB skulduggery! Emmitt Knott's haemo-irradiation machine re-surfaced in St Petersburg (Leningrad). For the past 20 years Professor Kira Samoilova, a cell biologist has been developing the concept of haemo-irradiation with her colleagues at the Russian National Academy of Sciences. They have been using a little machine known as the Isolda for years and literally hundreds of thousands of patients have been treated with it in Russia. The technique is to extract a small quantity of blood, treat it with either ultra-violet or laser light for about 10-15 minutes and retransfuse it into the patient.

The reported results are astonishing. It is used primarily in support of standard therapies for a wide range of conditions including 'suppurative-inflammatory conditions, infections, cardiovascular, auto-immune, dermatologic and oncologic diseases, as well as ulcers, burns, traumas, intoxications, etc.'. It is also used as a sole therapy for ulcers, the detoxification of addicts and such things as viral pneumonia. The treatment is still virtually unheard of in this country but there is a strong tradition of haemo-irradiation in Germany and a number of different devices are on the market there.