|This is my contribution to Round Twelve of ABC Wednesday and again I am focusing on people, some famous, some infamous and some half-forgotten.|
Many dismiss James Graham as just another 18th century quack, while others believe he was the world’s first sex therapist. But whatever your view, there can be no denying that he had a genuine genius for the grand gesture.
Born in Edinburgh in 1745, the son of a saddler, Graham trained in medicine, but left medical school without taking his degree and set up as an apothecary in Doncaster in Yorkshire.
In 1770 he left England for America where he travelled as an oculist and aurist before settling in Philadelphia. It was there that he was introduced to the principles of electricity by Ebenezer Kinnersley, friend and colleague of Benjamin Franklin.
He returned to England and set up his practice in London where Horace Walpole was one of his patients, consulting Graham about his gout.
But Graham hadn’t finished his globe-trotting and he traveled extensively in Holland, Germany and Russia before finally settling in the spa town of Bath in the west country where he advertised cures that promised ‘Effluvia, Vapours and Applications ætherial, magnetic or electric’.
It was then that he first came to national attention thanks to his first celebrity patient, the bluestocking historian Catharine Macaulay. She caused a scandal in 1778 when she married Graham’s younger brother William when she was 47 and he was just 21.
Graham moved to London in 1780 and it was there that he opened his first Temple of Health at the Adelphi. There he put on display his elaborate electro-magnetic apparatus, treated patients with musical therapy and pneumatic chemistry as well as electricity and magnetism, published marriage guidance material, gave medical lectures and sold medicines such as ‘Electrical Aether’ and ‘Nervous Aetherial Balsam.’
He was assisted by a series of Goddesses of Health who he held up as models of physical perfection and among them was Emy Lyons, later better known as Emma Hamilton, mistress of Horatio Nelson.
Graham’s venture was a great success and the following year he opened his Temple of Hymen in Pall Mall, designed to hold his most memorable contraption – the Celestial Bed.
Graham said that this ‘wonder-working edifice’ guaranteed both ecstasy and fertility and promised exquisite pleasure and perfect babies to his devotees.
The bed itself was 12 by 9 feet and covered by a dome adorned by musical automata, fresh flowers, and a pair of live turtle doves.
Oriental fragrances and ‘aethereal’ gases were released from inside the dome and a tilting inner frame put couples in the best position to conceive, their movements setting off music from organ pipes which breathed out ‘celestial sounds’ which increased with the ardour of the bed’s occupants.
The whole thing was electrified and insulated by 40 cut glass pillars. At the head of the bed, above a moving clockwork tableau celebrating Hymen, the god of marriage, and sparkling with electricity were the words: ‘Be fruitful, multiply and replenish the earth!’ (You can see more detail in Tim Hunkin’s Celestial Bed poster on the left)
Graham also delivered his famous Lecture on Generation, a frank explanation of how to conceive which saw sex as a patriotic act and procreation as a national duty.
But such elaborate devices came at a cost and Graham soon found himself in financial difficulties. By the summer of 1781 he had vacated his Temple of Health to concentrate on his Hymen venture, but even so he could not stave off debt and in 1784 he was forced to sell all that he had and return to Edinburgh, his reputation in tatters.
In the years that followed, Graham developed an entirely new therapy that he called ‘earthbathing’ and would lecture on the subject while buried up to the neck in earth.
He renounced his previous electrical treatments and founded a new church in his home, soon becoming overcome by a religious mania that we now call a Messiah Complex.
Despite his eccentricities and hyperbole, Graham was a progressive thinker and published humane views on war, slavery, women’s education, and religious tolerance.
Graham died suddenly at his home in Edinburgh on Christmas Eve 1794.