Academic journal article Transactions of the American Philosophical Society

Why Sweden?

Academic journal article Transactions of the American Philosophical Society

Why Sweden?

Article excerpt

Prompted to record for posterity his recollections of the first meeting of the International Society for the Study of Biological Rhythm, the Bohemian Zoologist Hans Kalmus fondly remembered arriving at Ronneby, Sweden, by train in the evening of 12 August 1937; enjoying the following two days of conversation and conviviality among what he termed "one happy brotherhood" of scientists pursing a common interest.1 Kalmus, from Prague, had been hiking in Norway with friends, so a train trip to southern Sweden would have been a fairly long, continuous excursion from one remote location in Scandinavia to another. For anybody traveling from elsewhere in the world, the decision to meet near a small town in the largely rural county of Blekinge would have seemed odd, and passing references to the inability of invited American researchers to attend the conference suggest that the location was not chosen for its accessibility to an international group. Why, then, Ronneby? Indeed, why Sweden? What was special about this place at that time?

There are three fundamental factors that help to explain why a meeting to form an international society to study biological rhythms should be convened at Ronneby. First, a number of Swedish academic scientists and physicianresearchers were already quite active in various aspects of rhythms research and had formed a small working group to pursue metabolic rhythms in particular in Stockholm, at the Karolinska Institute (Stockholm's medical school and university hospital) and at Stockholms Högskola, which was renamed Stockholm University in 1960. Romell and Stâlfelt were at the Högskola, but two physicians at the Karolinska, who were employed at the health spa in Ronneby during the summer of 1937, were no doubt the immediate reason for the meeting's time and place. But this does not explain why Swedes were so prominent in biological rhythms research. To explain this, two additional contextual factors need to be considered. First, there was a history of Scandinavian interest in the effects of light on living things, perhaps a consequence of inhabiting the Far North. Second, there was an intellectual tradition of studying the effects of environmental cycles on organisms that was grounded in the work of Nobel laureate Svante Arrhenius and his colleague Nils Ekholm. I shall treat these in greater detail, beginning with the general geographic and scientific backdrop as a motivation for why there were a number of prominent biological rhythms researchers in Sweden during the 1930s.

The simple fact that Sweden is a land of the Far North, where the annual rhythms of light and dark exert an obvious influence on the physical and psychological condition of people, should be considered a reason for Scandinavians' scientific interest in light and its medical implications. Certainly this is true of late twentieth-century study of seasonal affective disorder and other chronobiological research, but it was also manifest fairly early, beginning perhaps with the work of Anders Angstrom (1814-74) on light spectra and the development of light therapy by Niels Finsen (1860-1904).2 Angstrom was one of the pioneers of spectroscopy, closely studying emission lines in the aurora borealis and the solar spectrum, correlating it with the terrestrial emission spectrum.5 Although he never specifically studied the effects of light on living organisms, his research clearly concerned the interaction of solar radiation with the terrestrial physical environment, implicitly raising the question of the significance of exposure to different spectral components of sunlight.4 Finsen was trained in medicine at the University of Copenhagen, where he first began to investigate the pathological and subsequently healing effects of portions of the visible and ultraviolet spectrum on patients with smallpox and skin tuberculosis, "inaugurating the modern era of phototherapy."5 Finsen was put in charge of the newly created Lysinstitut (Institute for Light Therapy) in 1896, which encouraged further research and interest in the healing effects of light. …

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