February 26, 2024
Niels Ryberg Finsen

Niels Ryberg Finsen: Researcher in Physics

It was in Copenhagen where Niels Ryberg Finsen first started doing research on the effects of light. He studied its wavelengths that could affect blood cells and he coined the term “Phototherapy”. His findings were groundbreaking and it earned him a Nobel Prize for Medicine in 1903.

In 1894, Niels Ryberg Finsen became the head of the department of physics at University of Copenhagen. However, his position would not last very long as he contracted a horrible illness called Erysipelas three years later. With this condition, it forced him to abandon his work in research due to fever and pain that was just too much to bear through.

About Niels Ryberg Finsen

Besides being a medical doctor, Niels Ryberg Finsen was also a researcher on the effects of light on human health. He had specifically research how the sunlight could be use to increase the efficiency of the human body’s functions and treatments. 

In 1896, he first observed that it was possible for light to affect blood cells and influence their growth. He realize that this discovery could be use in treatment for patients who had blood deficiencies or other blood problems in their body. He also devised methods during this time that focused on combining these observations with his previous research.

In 1904, he made a breakthrough by observing its effects on an organism in his own home during a solar eclipse.

Niels Ryberg Finsen

His Life


Niels Ryberg Finsen was born on the 10th of October 1864 in Køge, Denmark. He was the son of Ole Ryberg and Kirstine Finsen, who was a seamstress. At the time of his birth, his mother was just 21 years old. His father passed away when he was just two years old. After that tragic incident, Niels and his family moved to Amsterdam where they were living under temporary financial support from relatives.


Niels Ryberg Finsen enrolled at a school called “The Royal Danish Theatre School” which focus on training actors for stage productions that were directed by the theatre itself. He attended there for eight years, from the age of 15 until his 18th birthday, which marks the last time that he attended the school. After his years there, Niels Ryberg Finsen went on to study at the University of Copenhagen. He would go on and successfully earn a doctorate degree in medicine from the university in 1887.

Research and Achievements

In 1896, Niels Ryberg Finsen was studying with other medical doctors at the University of Copenhagen when he noticed that light could affect blood cells and stimulate their growth. To test this, he began using ultraviolet sunlight to treat sea urchin eggs (an organism used in research). After just a few months of doing so, he devised a way to use the experiment in treatment for patients who had blood deficiencies or other blood problems in their body. 

In 1904, he observed that it was possible for light to stimulate the growth of an organism when it came from behind its head.

He came up with the idea of using this principle in a more therapeutic way. He continued his work on this principle. And devised various ways that focused on using different wavelengths of light with different effects on the organism. Finally, he published his findings in 1905 with the title “Phototherapy”. It is believe that this “phototherapy” contribute to his invention of artificial light glasses which could be use to treat humans with poor visual senses or blindness. He also used this principle to create a machine that would treat defective skin diseases and to create ointments that had healing properties.

In 1906, he was name as a professor at the University of Copenhagen. Here, he taught the subject of physics until his untimely death in 1923. He left behind his wife, Hertha Schlemm, who was an opera singer and a son, Holger Finsen. Both of them became known in their own career fields as well. 

The Legacy Of Ryberg Finsen

After passing away in 1923 due to brain cancer, his findings on “phototherapy” became widely known throughout Europe and America. It help to increase its use and get more patients involve in using it. Today, artificial light is used on a daily basis and is seen as having a positive effect on human health.

Honours giving to Ryberg Finsen

His work was awarded with the Nobel Prize in Medicine in 1903

In 1900, Niels Ryberg Finsen was given the Jersild Gold Medal from the Royal Danish Academy of Sciences.

It was in 1904, he was also award with Davy Medal for his discovery of phototherapy

In 1931, he was honor as a knight in Britain’s Order of Merit.

In 1943, he was posthumously awarded a gold medal for physics by the Swedish Royal Academy of Sciences. This medal is given to Niels Ryberg Finsen “in appreciation for his great contributions towards understanding the nature of radiant energy in the atmosphere. And on material objects which have served as foundation to modern physical science.”

The “Finsen Prize” which is awarded every year since 1988 has been created in his honour.

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