Book Reviews

Doctor of Love

By Lydia Syson

Alma Books £20

Review by Anne Sebba, The Daily Telegraph, 10 October 2008

ISBN 9781846880544

James Graham claimed he was not only a doctor of medicine but a physician of the soul. It was a powerful and dangerously hypnotic combination and for a few years in the 1780’s Graham, the world’s first sex therapist, was the toast of Georgian London.

Eighteenth century Britons were obsessed by their health, eager to consume the latest pill or apply the latest potion. Yet most of the cures offered by conventional medicine involved such unpleasant and painful practices as blistering, bloodletting and purging, mostly of dubious benefit. So when the handsome and charming, Edinburgh trained Dr James Graham announced his Grand State Celestial Bed, an astonishing piece of furniture-cum-medical apparatus which offered users both ecstasy and fertility, Georgian London – not surprisingly – flocked to his doors. At the height of his success he attracted 11,000 visitors in three months. Wordworth described the man who shocked and thrilled the nation as “the great high-priest of love.” He called himself James Graham, conqueror, under God, of diseases.

At a cost of £50 married couples (although not too many questions were asked about the marital status) could spend a night on the electric bed. Conception was, apparently guaranteed. Marriages and families would no longer be threatened by infidelity or infertility, Dr Graham promised. Thanks to his bed, Britain could be populated by a race of super humans, for he believed sex was a patriotic act and procreation a patriotic duty.

Electricity was the most thrilling achievement of the enlightenment and Graham returned from a trip to America convinced of the parallels between electricity and intercourse, publicly declaring that “the venereal act itself at all times and under every circumstance is in fact no other than an electrical operation.” Within a few years he had set up a Temple of Health in South London and there, dressed in seductively revealing robes and posing as Vestina, Goddess of Health, was the young Emy Lyon, failed actress and prostitute, who later became Emma, Lady Hamilton, wife of the British Ambassador to Naples and Nelson’s mistress.

Buoyed up by his success Graham decided to expand. He called his smart new premises in Pall Mall The Temple of Prolific Hymen and it was here that he displayed the extraordinarily kitsch celestial bed that was the summit of his ambitions.

Measuring 12ft long by 9 ft wide, the bed was supported by forty glass pillars to insulate it. Once set in motion by the copulating couple a musical accompaniment started up – ‘celestial sound’s as Graham dubbed these mechanical tunes. Mirrors judiciously placed on the ceiling and highly scented narcotic gases pervading the air enhanced the erotic pleasure and passion. Cupid and Psyche looked down on activities from the top of the bed and if the lovers noticed that the electrical charge, which came through iron rods operated by a machine in the room next door, made their hair stand on end, it would only have served to convince them that the “cure” was working.

Among his most famous patients was Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire, who consulted him in her desperation to conceive a son and heir for the Devonshire estates and Catherine Macauley, the bluestocking historian then in her forties. She subsequently married Graham’s younger brother aged 21, which was rather a good advertisement.

One of Graham’s most bizarre prescriptions to cure infertility was a regimen of daily electrification for an hour or two, bathing on alternate days in deep cold water strongly scented with aromatic herbs, drinking sage and liquorice root juice, washed down with wine and spa water. In addition, every night and morning for several months, the woman had to douse her nether regions with champagne.

But Graham was also a showman. Inevitably his sex clinic soon became a source of scandal and he was denounced by some as the King of Quacks. Over extended and besieged by creditors, he allowed gamblers into the building, which was quickly nicknamed the temple of thieves. He retired to Edinburgh, devoted himself to promoting a mud cure and then returned to London in a blaze of theatrical glory with his earth baths, yet another challenge to medical orthodoxy and the medical establishment.

Lydia Syson makes bold claims for this man who she describes as a misunderstood genius. He is a genuine eccentric and Syson tells his story without sensationalism: Doctor of Love is no three-in-a-bed romp under the bedcovers. But she admits that James Graham clearly loved sex. He also loved fame and fortune and hoped he could combine them. In the end, it’s hard to know what to make of him. We learn of one woman, childless after seven years, who spent a night in the bed followed by an icy bath and “firm massage” from her husband who ended up pregnant. Perhaps it was the massage that did it?

I would have loved more about his private life. Syson is convinced that he was faithful to his wife on the grounds that the scandal sheets would have pilloried him mercilessly if they had sniffed any private irregularities. But what did Mrs G. think of the Bed and did they ever have a romp on it together?

James Graham died aged 49 in 1794 and is without a memorial, shunned by the medical establishment as a quack. Today he’d be called a lifestyle coach or a celebrity psychotherapist dishing out advice on television.

Anne Sebba is the author of Jennie Churchill :Winston’s American Mother (John Murray Pbk £8.99 )