Name of dropdown file: custom.js


John Ott, Light Pioneer

Ramon Sender Barayon

Originally Published in The Whole Earth Review 1986


Photobiology, the study of the effects of light on living things, is relatively new as a formal field of scientific inquiry.  Only over the past ten years has it become acceptable to question the quality of artificial light we live by and to look more closely at how the human organism responds to sunlight.  Recent articles in the popular press attest to exciting discoveries, for example the January 14th New Yorker of this year, which reported a conference titled 'The Medical and  Biological Effects of Light.'  Curiously, the article never once mentioned John Nash Ott who deserves much of the credit for awakening interest in this subject.

During his career as a banker in Chicago, John Ott developed his hobby of time-lapse photography into a successful sideline.  We have all seen his blossoming flowers in such Walt Disney films as "Nature's Half Acre."  It was while filming plants under various lighting conditions that Ott noticed how their reactions varied. A reprint of an article from
Smithsonian Magazine  in the September 22nd San Francisco Chronicle's  "This World" section described how Ott went on to study the responses of both flora and fauna to specific wavelengths.  Filming through a microscope, he found that the pigment granules in both animal cells and chloroplasts exhibited specific behavior patterns to different parts of the electromagnetic spectrum.

'Quoting from this article by Jack Fincher:

"Ott went looking for examples of humans whose health and well-being appeared directly affected by light, and he believed he found them.  In one, a laboratory where contact lenses were made, the employees were remarkably free of flue.  The lab had plastic windows which admitted ultraviolet light.  This is screened out by  ordinary glass;  that is why you cannot get a suntan inside.
'Another was a seafood restaurant in a hotel. The restaurant had black light (ultraviolet) decor. The health record of the restaurant employees was so outstanding that management could not believe it, especially when the compared the record with those of  employees in other departments of the hotel.
'Ott concluded that by deliberately screening out supposedly harmful traces of atmospheric ultraviolet with tinted windows, sunglasses, suntan lotions and the like, we may be making ourselves more vulnerable to "malillumination" than we ever were to malnutrition  caused by lack of trace minerals in our diets.'

His book Health And Light, first published in 1973 and now available in an updated Pocket Book edition, describes many of his early experiences and discoveries.  One personal anecdote: Ott himself was suffering from severe arthritis of the hip which doctors said would ultimately require a plastic replacement.  Although in the habit of wearing sunglasses because his eyes were sensitive to glare, on this particular day he had broken his best pair and went out without them.  He was doing some chores with the aid of his cane when suddenly he didn't seem to need it.  His hip had not felt so well in years, and he began walking up and down the driveway without his cane to test it.
Sensing his improvement was related to the effect of unfiltered sunlight on his eyes, he made a point to expose himself as little as possible to filtered sun.  On a subsequent trip to Florida gradually strengthened his eyes to the point where their sensitivity to glare was reduced.  The results were so beneficial that within a week he was playing several rounds of golf and walking on the beach without a cane.

Quoting from Ott:

'Theories may be interesting to think about... but this was affecting my own arthritis, a much more personal matter.  Maybe I was one of the lucky people who get better for no reason at all, but I felt strongly that there was a reason.  I had taken off my glasses and let the full unfiltered natural sunlight into my eyes and had also made a point of being outdoors six hours or more a day whether it was sunny or cloudy.  To me the results were convincing enough: that light received through the eyes must stimulate the pituitary or some other gland such as the pineal about which not much was known.'

At the time he wrote these words, the pineal gland was still described in textbooks as a vestigal remnant of our reptile ancestry.   For example, in lizards and frogs the 'parietal eye,' as the pineal was named, functioned as a register of solar radiation.  Located just under the skin, it still contained a miniature cornea,lens and  retina.  Going up the evolutionary ladder, the pineal in birds was no longer a sensory organ but a gland.
In the mid-sixties, Dr. Richard J. Wurtman of M.I.T.'s Laboratory of Neuroendocrinology discovered that the growth of the reproductive glands in some mammals was regulated by a pineal hormone named melatonin.  Furthermore the release of melatonin was controlled by neural linkages between the eyes and the gland itself.  In a July 1975 Scientific American article, Dr. Wurtman delineated some segments of the specific pathway by which light stimulated the ovary of a rat.  I quote:

'Receptors in the retina gave rise to a chain of nerve impulses that travelled via a chain of synapses through the brain, the brain stem and the spinal cord, ultimately decreasing the activity of neurons running to the superior cervical ganglion (in the neck) and of the sympathetic nerves that reenter the cranium and travel to the pineal organ. There the decrease in activity reduces both the synthesis and secretion of melatonin.  With less melatonin in the blood or cerebrospinal fluid, less reaches the brain centers (probably the hypothalamus) on which melatonin acts to suppress secretion of luteinizing hormone from the anterior pituitary. Thus more hormone is released, facilitating ovarian growth and presumably ovulation.'

If accredited investigators found it hard to change the mindset of the scientific community, it is easy to see why John Ott's discoveries were laughed off.  His lack of scientific credentials made his credibility suspect to the medical establishment even though he conducted his experiments with scrupulous care.  Working with pigment epithelial cells found in the retina of the eye and which were then thought to have no visibility function, Ott was able to demonstrate that the cells responded to given wavelengths and  intensities of light in the same manner as chloroplasts in plants.  He suggested that these similar responses might be involved in the photoreceptor mechanism which stimulated the retinal-hypothalamic-endocrine system in animals and in turn influenced the hormonal balance of the body.
Retiring to Florida, he founded the Environmental Health and Light Institute where he struggled for years for the funding necessary to continue his work.   He investigated the effect of light on the growth of tumors, the interconnection between school lighting and hyperactivity in children.  He showed how cells exposed to red light suffered a weakening and consequent rupturing of their walls, the effect especially noticeable in the heart cells of a chicken embryo which led him to speculate as to a possible connection between the high red content in ordinary incandescent light bulbs and coronary disorders.

In another article published in the text Frontiers Of Pineal Physiology by the MIT Press in 1945, Dr. Wurtman delineated the eye to pineal pathway further:

'Light stimuli reach the pineal by a circuitous route ultimately involving the sympathetic nervous system. Photoreceptors in the eye respond to environmental lighting by generating nerve impulses that are transmitted along the optic nerve.  Most of these impulses travel to brain centers associated with vision.  A small fraction of the impulses diverges from the main visual pathway and travels along a nerve bundle (the inferior accessory optic tract) which leads to the central hypothalamic neurons involved in the regulation of the sympathetic system.  From this point the pathway descends via the spinal cord to preganglionic neurons supplying the superior cervical ganglia; the postganglionic neurons then ascend to the pineal where they act by liberating the neurotransmitter norepinephrine.'

 Today it is generally accepted that the pineal acts as a regulator of regulators within the body's endocrine system.  Monitoring the quality of light in our environment, it adjusts the hormonal balance accordingly, affecting such diverse functions as growth and development, body temperature, electrolyte balance, diurnal rhythms, blood sedimentation and many types of blood cell counts.  According to Dr. Fritz Hollwich in his book The Influence of Ocular Light Perception On Metabolism In Man And In Animal, published in 1979 by Springer-Verlag, the quality of light we live with also affects kidney function, water and electrolyte balance, protein and liver metabolism, blood sugar, insulin production and the functioning of the thyroid.  What has been left out?  I don't think it would be an exaggeration to say that almost every body parameter is influenced in some manner by the quality of light in our environment.

Everyone who enjoys sitting in the sun or sunbathing knows there must be measurable physiological responses behind this almost universal pastime.  In retrospect, it seems unbelievable it took researchers so long to accept the fact that the we respond in many different ways to electromagnetic stimuli.  However ultraviolet light has received a great deal of bad press.   The average person's view has been based on the seasonal warnings not to overdo sunbathing sessions at the beach and to protect their eyes with sunglasses.  Of course the short ultraviolet rays, most of which are stopped by the ozone layer of the atmosphere, are destructive in quantity to living tissue.  But the long ultraviolet used in black lights is not hazardous in the trace amounts that occur naturally outdoors.  Like so many things, it's a question of the proper dosage.  The balance presented to us in sunlight, whether in full strength or in semishade, seems to be what we need for optimum health.  Not too surprising considering the millions of years we lived as naked hunter-gatherers out under the sun.

The New Yorker article also mentioned reports of encouraging results in the treatment of depression and jet lag by the use of bright lights.  In the case of Dr. Alfred J. Lewy in Oregon, he recommended the use of fluorescents of the Vita-Lite type produced by Duro-Test.  They should be used at a strength four times greater than ordinary room lighting.  The Vita-Lite was developed by John Ott twenty-five years ago and he claims it is inferior to his new full spectrum fluorescent fixtures that are radiation shielded and provide a separate socket for an ultraviolet black light.  In his most recent book, Light, Radiation And You, published by Devin-Adair in 1982 and updated in 1975, he discusses differences between available fluorescents in detail as well as some of his most recent findings.

Gradually the recognition and honor John Ott richly deserved has begun to come to him, an honorary Doctor of Science degree from Loyola University and the Grand Honors Award of the National Eye Research Foundation among others.  In his July 1985 newsletter, he announced a startling new discovery:

'Possibly the most important development is the finding that when a drop of human blood is placed on an ultraviolet transmitting microscope slide and then placed directly in front of a video display terminal for five minutes, it will cause long chain clumping of the red blood cells known as 'Rouleau.'  The clumping effect has been recognized by doctors for quite some time but has been attributed to poor diet (too much fat) and lack of exercise.  Medication to thin the blood has been used.

'However, our finding is that if the slide with the blood sample is then placed directly in front of the low-level ultraviolet light source of an Ott-Lite (tm) radiation shielded fixture for another five minutes, the Rouleau clumping will be broken up.  This clumping of the red blood cells restricts the flow of blood through the capillaries and is thought by many doctors to be a contributing cause to many degenerative types of conditions, including Alzheimer's Disease.

'This finding with pictures is included in an article in the July 1985 issue of the International Journal For Biosocial Research, P.O. Box 1174, Tacoma, Washington 98401. '

Reprints of the article as well as copies of John Ott's books are available from The Downtown Bookstore, 1500 Main Street, Sarasota, Florida 33577.

I recently telephoned Dr.Ott at his home to ask if he had anything to add to my comments.

"Well, the most alarming information is that we have repeated the clumping experiments several times and confirmed our original findings," he told me.  "There's no question of a doubt, and it's much worse with a video display terminal than with an average television set of a comparable size.  The equipment in the terminals seems to give off greater magnetic fields, and we think this problem is due to the magnetic fields magnetizing the iron in the hemoglobin, causing them to have a polarity that makes them line  up just like a bunch of little magnets.

"However we find that getting the person outdoors or seating them directly in front of our full-spectrum lighting with ultraviolet reverses the condition.  The ultraviolet seems to be an important factor in breaking up this clumping.  Being able to show so quickly the effect of video display terminals on the red blood cells and the reversing of this condition in sunlight is going to be a very helpful demonstration.  

"However the initial response from video display terminal manufacturers has been very discouraging.  Of course they see dollars going out the window. But in the long run, it's going to be a different story.  I was just reading an article on class action suits, particularly the asbestos problem.  I think there is a growing realization that the electronics industry has a far greater liability from all this radiation pollution, especially with the PCB's used in transformers and fluorescent light ballasts.  The New York Times had an article about a major problem that developed at the Smithsonian Institute from the leakage of this material out of the ballasts in fluorescent light fixtures.  This seems to me a major liability.  It's just unfortunate that everybody waits until legal action is taken before doing anything about it.

"The good news is that we have had good reports from several places where they have installed our full spectrum radiation-shielded fluorescent fixtures in computer rooms.  The people working there have said they feel so much better, and no longer have the headaches and eyestrain and other problems.  Of course, when you do something for somebody, there's a psychological effect and they feel better.  We have to be certain that there is more than just a psychological effect, and plan to do a series of tests using this blood-clumping result."

"I recently placed a black light over my color television and leave it on when I watch programs," I said.  "Is there such a thing as getting too much black light?"

"Of course there's always the problem of getting too much of anything including oxygen.  The lights that we are making of course have the proper size tube for the number and size of visible light tubes in each fixture.  What size tube do you have?"

"About eighteen inches."

"Well, one of those I am sure would be all right.  Of course our fluorescent tubes are protected with lead foil on the ends where the cathodes emit x-ray radiation, and the fixtures in addition the ultraviolet transmitting plastic diffusers have a wire grid to ground their radio frequency.  Also, in my book I recommend using the daylight incandescent bulb in the place of the regular one.  The daylight has the blue glass which cuts down on the excessive amount of red which comes from the ordinary incandescent light bulb.

"You can get the Vita-Lite which I developed twenty-five years ago with the Duro-Test company, but that was just adding ultraviolet phosphor into their fluorescent tubes of the full visible spectrum type developed originally for color-matching purposes.  They added the ultraviolet directly into the tube and then found that the phosphor had only an effective burning life of about one-third of the visible.  It's gone long before the tube finally burns out, and there's no easy way to tell when it occurs.  That's why with the new Ott-Lite we have added the small black light tube separately."

"What about these Gro-Lites what people use for indoor plants?"

"I've got one here and I'm trying to get a spectral analysis of it to see how much UV it has.  But it's my understanding that the Gro-Lite has that bluish glass similar to the daylight incandescent.  I'm not certain it actually gives off any ultraviolet.  That's something I'm looking into right now.
I asked him how he felt at having his years of work finally vindicated.

"Of course I am really pleased at the interest being shown now," he replied.  "The scientific community is beginning to recognize that light is an important variable that should be considered and controlled, especially in research laboratories.  As I have said in my articles, I have been trying to bring lighting under scientific control rather than leaving it up to the janitor and building maintenance."