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Doctor of Love:
An Eighteenth-Century Tale of Sex, Scandal, and Divorce

by Lydia Syson

Book Review by Rob Hardy

 

The Book of Love

When Doctor James Graham died in 1794, he was sure that in the future “thousands of weak, sick, and lame persons, will arise up in health, strength, and happiness, and call me blessed.”  Instead, Graham is completely forgotten.  Well, not quite.  Historian Lydia Syson has brought him back, and it’s about time.  Doctor of Love: James Graham and his Celestial Bed (Alma Books) is the story of the man who, in Syson’s view, invented sex therapy.  In a world where there was no Viagra, and no scientific studies of what people did in bed or how their reproductive organs worked, Graham not only thought he knew something about human reproduction but that he could impart what he knew for the improvement of happiness of married couples and the increase in the number and vigor of their offspring.  “I am not only a doctor of medicine, but a physician of the soul,” he said.  There is no real way of gauging how successful his soul or sexual healing was (though he naturally bragged about its effectiveness), but Graham was a real showman who took the sexual knowledge of his time and presented it in an entertaining way.  He was a quack, to be sure, but in an age when scientific principles had yet to be rationally applied to medicine, quackery was what even the most trained physicians were offering.  Graham just did it on a glittering scale, and got people thinking and talking about sexual matters at a time when such things just were not done.

Graham, Scottish by birth, got his medical training in one of the world’s best sites for it, Edinburgh.  He went on to work for William Buchan, whose book Domestic Medicine, became a standard.  He married in 1764; we don’t know much about his marriage except that it endured, even though in 1769 like many young men, he went to America to make his fortune, and he went by himself.  America was the site of his introduction to the new science of electricity.  Ben Franklin was the chief of electrical experimenters, but Franklin was eager to have any electrical knowledge spread throughout the populace, and encouraged other experimenters to put on public demonstrations.  The most successful such showman was Ebenezer Kinnersley, a minister who had become disgusted with American mass salvation meetings and took to preaching the electrical gospel, demonstrating how static electricity could be generated, showing the difference between materials that were conductors or insulators, making bright and loud sparks, and sending a shock through a line of people holding hands.  Graham learned the principles of electricity and started applying them to nervous disorders.  It was a small step from the flow of electrical fluids (as they were thought then) to the flow of sexual fluids.  He wrote that he was “suddenly struck with the thought, that the pleasure of the venereal act might be exalted or rendered more intense, if performed under the glowing, accelerating, and most genial influences of that heaven-born, all animated element or principle, the electrical or concocted fire.” 

Graham’s prose was full of such bombast.  He hungered for fame, and from Kinnersley also he learned self-promotion.  “In print,” Syson writes, “conviction could be converted into fact.”  Thus he created himself in the newspapers as one who “hath happily restored great Numbers to their Sight and Hearing, who had been deemed incurable by other Practitioners.”  He would lecture on the electrification of sexual cures, and would convert the lectures into sellable books and pamphlets.  He wrote, for instance, that people who had coitus on his electrical bed “... all found... that the pleasure was... rendered not only infinitely more intense, but at the same time, infinitely more durable!”  His bed in its first model in America was an ordinary bedstead, but the legs were replaced with strong glass pillars insulating it from the ground.  There were various static electricity generators with which he experimented.  A couple in the bed would have thought themselves within an electrical atmosphere, an realm of indescribable mystic forces.  Graham himself wrote that “the influence of the electrical fire... warms and invigorates the whole system!  - expanding the imagination of every faculty of body and soul!”  At least some of the participants would have enjoyed the idea that they were being observed by the doctor, who might have been partitioned away, but whose presence was still audible as he cranked away on the generators.  Graham was interested in increasing pleasure for its own sake but also for a very practical reason: he believed (as did others) that increasing coital pleasure meant increasing the chance of conception.  His treatments were certainly more pleasurable than the standard blistering, bloodletting, and purging that were the mainstays of his training.

He returned to England in 1773, probably because the political turmoil in America was bad for business.  He had left as a simple apothecary, but he was now an experienced practitioner and self-promoter.  He started practicing in Bath, and treated the famous bluestocking historian Catherine Macaulay for a range of nervous ailments.  She touted his success, and also went on to marry Graham’s brother who was far younger than she.  It was a great endorsement, and Graham set out for London, where he took rooms in a new palatial development, the Adelphi Terrace, on the bank of the Thames.  His rooms were palatial, too; it seems that the doctor had modest tastes for himself, but nothing was too good for the facilities for his patients.  He arranged for gorgeous, if gaudy, interior décor, plenty of mirrors, lots of swirled glass as columns and insulators, incense, music (sometimes played on the glass harmonica), and even the opportunity to get high on ether.  Visitors could take a tour of all the facilities for five shillings.  Graham would lecture about the bodily effects of electricity, air, music, and magnetism especially on sexual success.  Those who had the £50 to try a night on the Grand Celestial Bed got to put those principles into action.  Syson calls it “the world’s most erotic and elaborate fertility aid.”  It not only had electricity and magnets and mirrors, but as the couple set themselves into motion, their vibrations were carried to the instruments installed on the pillars and decorated dome of the bed which would begin to “breathe forth celestial sounds... lulling them in visions of elysian joys!” 

It was all very thrilling, and also funny, so the public got an education and also a cause for titters.  Graham was satirized on the stage in a play called The Genius of Nonsense, and in an elaborate puppet show.  He became the target of broadsides, and the subject of hundreds of smutty jokes, like the ones about how Graham’s temple was becoming a training ground for the city’s prostitutes.  Graham was extremely successful in becoming the talk of the town, and people did pay him, but he was a failure as a businessman and his expenditures for his elaborate equipment ensured his eventual run into debt, especially after his sexual lectures had to give way to society’s next fad, ballooning.  He became a religious maniac, and Syson says that his “conversion experience seems to have swept away his reason.”  Sadly, he seems eventually to have regarded his electrical sexual treatments as the Devil’s work.  It’s too bad.  He was a colorful character who Syson shows was similar to today’s health gurus, many of whom would agree with his principles about eating plenty of vegetables, staying clean, and drinking fresh water.  He insisted on the importance of a woman’s sexual pleasure.  He showed empathy and hope to the patients who came to him, and even if we now know that the Celestial Bed had only the benefits of a placebo, some of the patients got better, and surely all of them had some fun.  There is plenty of fun, too, to be had in this strange story, told with great detail and with sympathy for a remarkable eccentric.

Rob Hardy
December '09 - January '10

Doctor of Love: James Graham and his Celestial Bed
(Alma Books Ltd, Sep 2008; ISBN-10: 1846880548)
Available at: Amazon | Barnes & Noble

_______
© 2009 Rob Hardy. All rights reserved. Content may not be copied or used in whole or part without written permission from the author.


About the Reviewer:†
Rob Hardy is a psychiatrist who lives in Columbus, Mississippi, with his wife, two terriers, five cats, and goldfish.

He reviews nonfiction for The Times of Acadiana, but has been reviewing books as a hobby for years before that.
WebBio: Rob Hardy



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