In his book Light Therapeutics (1910), Dr. John Harvey Kellogg stated “no non-medicinal remedy has ever found its way so rapidly into general favor as have devices for utilizing the physical properties of light in combating the inroads of disease” (3). Indeed, Kellogg’s work in using light to stimulate healing in the human body found a warm reception with not only his medical colleagues in America, but across the globe as well.
This small article is not so much meant to give an in-depth account of Kellogg’s light therapy practices and their origins (for that I am writing an entire chapter of my dissertation to describe), but rather to make readers of my work aware of some of the connections between past and present health technologies and possible future research interests of mine. While many in the United States might see saunas or spas as “unprofessional” medicine and a cultural phenomenon, there are plenty of marked health benefits to sauna usage such as stress relief and, predominantly, circulatory and heart health (see articles on saunas on Harvard Health Publishing’s website www.health.harvard.edu).
But I am not interested in the practical health debates and theories of saunas as much as their origin and development. Traditional saunas and Turkish baths have been around for centuries, as have their various cultural counterparts. However, it was my recent encounter with infrared saunas that caught my interest as I am working on Kellogg’s light therapy techniques and their transatlantic and global connections. Specifically, I noticed a striking similarity between Kellogg’s light baths and the latest infrared saunas, which have found their way into popular American markets. For the purposes of brevity, I will only skim the development of Kellogg’s light baths and modern infrared saunas, and follow with some of my ideas.
Kellogg built his first electric light bath in 1891 and later displayed it at the Chicago Worlds Fair in 1893. It was, as far as he claimed, the first invention of its kind. Unlike the well known Turkish baths (which used steam to heat the air of an enclosed room) and a traditional Scandinavian sauna (a wood room or enclosure that was dry-heated via a stove often with stones around and on top of it), Kellogg’s light bath used incandescent light bulbs in an enclosed “cabinet” to heat the body and expose it to light rays. The light bath differed to the traditional sauna in that Kellogg was not as concerned in making people sweat as he was in the effects of “penetrating” light on the body. To utilize these effects Kellogg had to understand a good deal of the physics and properties of light, and beyond that, how the different waves of light affected the human body. A quick perusal of Light Therapeutics demonstrates Kellogg’s remarkable knowledge in the area of light therapy and his ability to utilize new and cutting-edge technology in his quest for health reform.
Essentially, Kellogg understood light as divided into three categories:
- Ultra-violet Light—Also called Chemical Ray or Actinic Rays. Was useful for rashes and other skin conditions, but was to be used sparingly as prolonged exposure could cause damage to the body.
- Infrared Light—Also called Ultra-red, Dark, Thermic, and Heat-Rays. This light spectrum was the focal point of Kellogg’s light therapy. The body could withstand protracted exposure to infrared light and its therapeutic properties fell right in line with Kellogg’s movement for lifestyle reform.
- Visible Light—Consists of the visible spectrum of light detectable by the human eye as white or colored light. This light was not considered as useful for therapeutic purposes as ultra-violet or infrared light.
While Kellogg employed chemical rays in his practice, his focus on changing personal health habits as a preventive measure led him to embrace thermic rays in therapeutic treatment. Thermic rays could “pass through the skin and penetrate to a considerable depth, being converted into heat as they meet with resistance,” and Kellogg was adamant to “call attention to a therapeutic principle which so far as known has not been definitely recognized in phototherapy, namely: the therapeutic value of the effect produced upon the skin by the thermic rays”(Light Therapeutics, 41). The exposure of the skin to thermic rays predominantly caused dilation of the blood capillaries and veins and arteries, which assisted in better blood flow and body functions. Kellogg was quick to remind readers that the skin is seldom remembered as an organ in of itself, and that “the blood vessels of every important internal organ are very directly connected with the vessels of the skin, through arteries or veins, or both; so that it is possible to produce effects by means of local as well as general hyperemias of the skin, thus inducing collateral anemia of vascularly related parts” (Light Therapeutics, 44). In other words, treatment via thermic ray exposure to a patient’s skin could positively impact their interior organs and promote an overall improvement in health.
To harness the benefits of thermic rays for his patients Kellogg invented his “light cabinet,” which exposed the entire body to infrared light through incandescent bulbs. Since the technology to produce only infrared light did not yet exist—indeed the ability to create artificial light had only just been appreciated—Kellogg realized that low-powered incandescent bulbs would have to suffice to expose patients to the healing thermic light spectrum. His invention, which many considered a novelty at the time, gained considerable legitimacy when a contingent of Germans observed his exhibit at the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair. One unnamed German visited the Battle Creek Sanitarium to observe its implementation and returned to Germany intent on bringing this new medical technology to the populace. Soon after, Kellogg Lichtbaden where being built with remarkable speed throughout Germany, with the phenomenon spreading well beyond German borders. However, the Lichtbad was not seriously implemented as a medical tool until the eminent Dr. Wilhelm Winternitz of the Imperial University at Vienna, Austria provided his endorsement. Kellogg studied hydrotherapeutic technique under Winternitz early in his medical career, and the two doctors shared a warm rapport across the Atlantic.
The Lichtbad soon became a recognized therapeutic device in the general population via established “Light Institutes” (although many decried it as a fad, this was due to certain Lichtbad models being quickly produced as profit schemes by non-medical individuals). However debated the Lichtbad was, it reached its full influence when it became a fixture in the homes and palaces of nobility and royalty. Kellogg recounted that “King Edward [VII] of England was cured of a distressing gout at Hamburg by means of a series of light baths,” and that he soon after “had the bath installed at Windsor and Buckingham palaces” (Light Therapeutics, 4). From there the King’s nephew, Kaiser Wilhelm II of Germany, followed suit, installing a Lichtbad in several of his palaces.
England and Germany, the world’s two competing superpowers at the time, served as a springboard for the Lichtbad’s transfusion into various other European countries not only via royal familial relations, but through intercultural transfer among the general population who continually sought out new and superior medical technology and techniques. By the turn of the century, Kellogg’s Lichtbad would find its way into such countries as Denmark, Norway, and Sweden—countries that already had various sauna traditions, but it must be remembered that Kellogg differentiated his light bath from the cultural tradition of saunas. However, it is unclear if this differentiation was recognized uniformly, and there is no doubt that, through the process of intercultural transfer, the light bath took on various forms as both serious health treatment and novelty.
Coming forward to modern day, Kellogg’s light bath is largely forgotten, and has become a fixture in medical museums and history books as a novelty of a bygone age. Unfortunately, the very object that brought Kellogg fame and recognition throughout America, Europe, and beyond, is now used as an item of ridicule and evidence of an eccentric health reformer—adding to a popular image of Kellogg as a buffoon and anomaly within the medical profession. An image that was tactlessly cultivated in the early 1990s through T. Coraghessan Boyle’s 1993 novel The Road to Wellville and subsequent movie of the same name, which starred actor Anthony Hopkins as Kellogg. However, Kellogg’s light bath enjoys popular use today among thousands of patrons who have no idea that they are using the Lichtbad’s modern equivalent—the infrared sauna.
I first learned of the infrared sauna this year at the State Fair of Texas (the irony of these inventions appearing at fairs does not escape me), where I read about its benefits as compared to more traditional saunas. While reading the literature, I found it remarkably similar in construction and purpose to Kellogg’s light baths. In fact, infrared saunas serve the exact same purpose. I have had further time to inspect the sauna’s capabilities and use it myself since my mother purchased one and installed it in her home.
An immediate overview of the infrared sauna’s function reveals that it uses infrared light to penetrate the body and raise its core temperature from the inside (as opposed to heating the air with steam or fire), resulting in better blood circulation, sweating of toxins, and dilation of the blood vessels, veins, and arteries. Both the modern infrared sauna and Kellogg’s light bath utilize the infrared spectrum of light for these health benefits. Had the technology existed to isolate infrared light in the early nineteenth century Kellogg’s light cabinet might look remarkably similar to modern infrared saunas. His reliance on incandescent light bulbs to provide the desired exposure was due to the limits of technology rather than a misunderstanding of the healing properties of light. Kellogg knew that while the body was exposed to the whole light spectrum (minus ultraviolet rays) with low-powered incandescent bulbs, the healing infrared rays would be included in the light spectrum of the bulbs. This was the most efficient way in 1891 to expose the human body to infrared rays, and Kellogg—who always sought to be on the cutting edge of technology in health reform—utilized an invention that was still new to the American public (as the incandescent bulb had only been marketed for the last ten years or so).
While there are obvious similarities between Kellogg’s light bath and modern infrared saunas, what is less clear is how connected they really are. It is certainly possible for infrared saunas to have their technological roots in the light bath, but whether there is a direct link to Kellogg is yet to be realized. Most infrared saunas marketed in the United States are manufactured in Canada, but the concept of using the infrared heating panels for a sauna actually originated in Japan. It would be remarkable if Kellogg’s light bath influenced the creation of these modern saunas, but for now, I can only speculate. Perhaps once there is time—meaning after my dissertation is finished—I will be able to delve into this phenomenon and further move Kellogg out of his prison of American context to one of Trans-Pacific. It is certainly reasonable to assume that such a connection exists. Since Kellogg displayed his invention at the World’s Fair in 1893, it is possible that the Japanese saw it along with the Germans.
Perhaps it is because I am intensely immersed in the study of Kellogg and his health reforms, but it seems that every time I turn around I see a connection to Kellogg and his methods. The infrared sauna is one on a list of many. But I hope that this particular phenomenon will be the subject of another study. But for now, this blog post will have to satisfy my curiosity and need to share my findings. At the very least, perhaps it will encourage the reader to try an infrared sauna, or at least remember Kellogg if they do.