Dr. John Ott: The Light Side of Health

A Plowboy Interview with John Ott, a former banker, whose hobby of time-lapse photography lead him to study the ways in which light can, in the proper spectral balance, enhance the health of plants, animals, and even humans.


| January/February 1986



097-016-01i1

John Ott


STAFF PHOTO

John Ott likes to use the word serendipity to describe how his part-time hobby in time-lapse photography sprouted into a pioneering career in the new field of photobiology. Thirty years ago, the Chicago banker was spending his free time photographing plants under fluorescent lights in his basement and filling his kitchen pantry with hundreds of reels of film. His time-lapse sequences showing flowers opening and fruits ripening were used on the first Chicago television station, in several Walt Disney nature documentaries, and in the feature film On a Clear Day You Can See Forever. However, in the course of his work, Ott often had trouble coaxing seedlings to grow or blossoms to form, as in the case of a stubborn pumpkin vine (commissioned by Disney) which produced only all male or all female flowers, depending on what type of lighting the plant received.

Intrigued by the possible connection between varying light waves and plant growth patterns, the amateur scientist built a special plastic-walled greenhouse in his backyard, and there the experiments continued, augmented by an impressive army of photographic lights set to turn on automatically for each time-lapse frame. Ott was so astounded — and encouraged — by his findings over the next few years that he carried his theories over into the animal world; Loyola University was so impressed with his results that they awarded him an honorary doctorate in science.

Eventually, Ott left banking and founded the Environmental Health and Light Research Institute to coordinate his ongoing studies into the ways in which light can, in the proper spectral balance, enhance the health of plants, animals, and even humans ... or seemingly cause certain disorders if received in a distorted or incomplete spectrum. Dr. Ott's research efforts generally met with polite indifference or derision from the scientific community, but he soon began to attract public attention with his theory of "malillumination" a condition he likens to malnutrition. Malillumination, he believes, is brought about by our unintentional limiting of our intake of full-spectrum daylight by shielding ourselves with such things as tinted windows, windshields, sunglasses and suntan lotions. Working with manufacturers, Ott went on to help develop an all new indoor lighting system which mimics the full-spectrum range of natural sunlight, and to devise experiments using the special fixtures.

These days, Dr. Ott lives in a lush, jungle like setting on the Gulf of Mexico, where he's "trying to retire.  The windows in his house are fitted with special ultraviolet-transmitting plastic, the light bulbs in his lamps are incandescent daylight blue, his television set sits inside a lead-lined box that's rigged with mirrors, and his "outdoor office" is a private retreat where he and his wife daily soak up an hour's worth of Florida sunshine. A modest man, Ott continually talks about "we" and "our work," as if to imply that he has a research colleague or an assistant. He doesn't — not even a secretary to handle the calls and mail that come in from all over the world in response to his articles and books (My Ivory Cellar, 1958; Health and Light, 1973; and Light, Radiation, and You, 1982).

Still vigorous at 75, Dr. Ott maintains a busy schedule of travel, scientific conferences, and appearances on radio and network television talk shows. Recently, he met with former MOTHER-staffer Jeanne Cameron to discuss his work, both past and present. The following edited version of their conversation will perhaps "shed some light" on a topic that may be of vital importance to anyone who's interested in good health. At the very least, it should make us think hard about some of the often overlooked environmental factors that just might affect our physical and emotional well-being.

PLOWBOY: Dr. Ott, you've been called a "Rousseau of our day" and a "natural philosopher in the tradition of the nineteenth century." Last year, your work was mentioned along with that of scientists at Harvard in a Smithsonian magazine article on light research. And that's after a successful banking career! You must have been something of a whiz kid in school.





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