On a hidden walking path in the center of Tórshavn is an interesting monument to Niels Finsen, the first Danish person to win the Nobel Prize.
Niels Finsen Memorial
Tórshavn, Faroe Islands
GPS: 62.009868, -6.769455
Just a few meters from the harbor, and hidden behind some buildings in Tórshavn, is a mystical-looking group of rocks guarded by stone pillars and an iron fence. This is an obscure monument to a man by the name of Niels Finsen.
Upon first glance, this heavily guarded corner looks as if it could be an ancient Celtic burial site, or a sacred shrine to the huldufólk or ‘hidden people’ that are said to inhabit the rocks.
But the real story here is actually much more interesting, and tells of how some random 1800’s graffiti by a young boy became a national monument.
On December 15th, 1860 a boy by the name Niels Ryberg Finsen was born. The son of the bailiff in Tórshavn.
He lived in the capital of the Faroe Islands for the first 14 years of his life before being sent to boarding school in Copenhagen.
While a young student in 1883, Niels noticed symptoms of chronic heart and liver ailments, which constantly made him feel cold.
This led to his eventual devotion to the study of medicine at Copenhagen University.
At school, Niels’ room faced north, so it never had the warmth of direct sunlight.
Then, Neils made a seemingly trivial observation of a cat sunning itself on a flat roof below his window.
As the sun moved through the sky, changing the direction of its light beams, the cat moved so that it would stay within the light of the sun.
As someone that was always cold, Neils was a bit jealous of this cat, and he began to take walks in the sunshine.
It was then that he first noticed the beneficial effects of being in the sun, that went beyond just warmth.
At this point in time, smallpox was a big problem, and patients were kept out of the sun to reduce skin eruptions.
So Finsen became interested in the possibility of a less drastic protection of the smallpox patient’s skin by means of red glass, or red curtains at the windows, to exclude the ultraviolet rays.
In an article ‘Light as Stimulus’ in 1895, Finsen, for the first time, proposed the use of general light radiation, in a natural or artificial light bath, for medical purposes.
Then, in his thesis ‘On the Use in Medicine of Concentrated Chemical Light Rays’ he first describes the method which would eventually create his fame.
Finsen said: «Thus we now see that from a theoretical viewpoint there is no obstacle to, on the contrary there is every indication in favor of a use of the light in local, external, bacterial skin diseases.»
Lupus vulgaris (also known as tuberculosis luposa) are painful, tuberculosis skin lesions most often on the face around the nose, eyelids, lips, cheeks, ears and neck.
Lupus vulgaris had previously been therapy-resistant, but light treatment provided a beneficial, bactericidal effect.
Finsen’s Medical Light Institute Copenhagen
In 1896 the modest Finsen’s Medical Light Institute was opened in Copenhagen.
On 12 August 1896, the modest Finsen’s Medical Light Institute was opened in Copenhagen and welcomed its first two patients.
The treatments were massively successful, and patients came flocking.
By 1901, just five years later, Finsen’s Medical Light Institute had treated 804 patients whom had traveled to Copenhagen from all across Europe for treatment, and claimed an impressive cure rate of 83 percent.
When the Nobel Prize for Medicine was to be awarded in 1903 the judges had approximately 30 candidates on which to decide.
And on October 15th, 1903 Niels Ryberg Finsen was awarded the Nobel Prize for Medicine.
Though the 1903 Distribution of the Nobel Prizes ceremonially occurred in the presence of the Swedish Royal Family, with King Oscar II presenting the awards, prize-winners M. and Mme Curie and Finsen were unable to attend.
Niels Finsen, winner of the 1903 Medicine Prize, did not hold any Nobel lecture.
His health steadily deteriorated and on September 23rd, 1904 his long suffering came to an end.
After his death, a letter to the Copenhagen newspaper read:
To the Editor: — After a week spent at Finsen’s Light Institute I have begun to realize the magnitude and extent of the work performed here. Each day from 150 to 200 patients receive treatment, among whom one can recognize types from all civilized nations. The institute itself is situated in a quiet part of Copenhagen, the streets leading thereto being amply provided with shade trees which produce a pleasing and restful effect as one approaches the buildings. The institute physicians, four in number, are well trained and courteous. The government annually subscribes 30,000 kroner toward the maintenance of the institution. This, together with the Nobel prize money which Finsen munificently tendered the institute, has rendered possible its present complete organization. All who seek treatment obtain it. Those who can afford to pay do so, and those who can not afford to pay receive treatment gratis.Copenhagen, July 11, 1905
One hundred years later, and NASA is studying light’s effects in promoting wound healing in astronauts by helping cells and tissues grow.
Dermatologists and estheticians commonly use light therapy to treat a range of skin issues.
One century after his initial discovery, Niels Ryberg Finsen’s light therapy technology has evolved to help millions of people in ways he could never have imagined.
During the first 14 years of his life, while he lived in the Faroe Islands, Niels R. Finsen carved his initials “NRF” into a stone on this spot in Tórshavn. You can see the carving just inside the sturdy iron fence.
On the fence, you will see several patterns referencing the life of Niels Finsen.
The year of his birth: 1860
The year of his death: 1904
The initials that he carved into the rock: NRF
And a design with the rays of sunshine, paying respect to Niels Finsen’s contribution to mankind, the use of light for medicinal purposes.
The moral of this story may also be, if you want your petty vandalism and graffiti to be declared a national monument, you better also plan on winning the Nobel Prize.
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