One of the most infamous and paradoxical figures in the world of eighteenth century irregular medicine, James Graham has been branded as the archetypical quack. He used every possible marketing strategy and spectacle in a career that took him from humble beginnings in Edinburgh to America and back, to the heights of fame and fortune and the depths of poverty and incarceration. His practice spanned many areas, promoting cures for nervous disorders, impotency and even old age, lecturing, pamphleteering and even setting up his own temple. He reached the height of Georgian society, meeting personally with Benjamin Franklin, and achieving recommendation from the Duchess of Devonshire, before descending possibly into madness, lecturing while buried to his neck in earth and serving time in Tolbooth prison for breach of the peace.
James Graham was born in Edinburgh in 1745 and studied in one of the most prestigious medical establishments of the time, Edinburgh University, under the tutelage of Drs Whytt, Cullen and Black, although he never completed his degree. After dropping out of his studies, Graham left for America where he became enthralled by the new electrical medical treatments being pioneered by Benjamin Franklin. On his return to England he set up a very profitable business in Bath, the capital of fashionable medicine, before he moved to London in 1775.
The Temple of Health
Dr James Graham was most famous, or more accurately infamous, for his treatment of impotency and advice on sexual practise. In 1780 he established his Templum Aesculapium Sacrum, the Temple of Health. The apparatus reportedly cost him £10 000, and consisted of, amongst other things, electrical machines, electrical conductors, an electrical ‘throne’, chemical apparatus, stained glass windows and pillars, and most famously the celestial bed. This was the centre piece of the temple, which Graham claimed was an infallible means of getting pregnant for the cost of £50 a night. The bed was 12 ft by 9ft, had a mattress made of hair and magnets, was held up by forty pillars of shining glass and was placed beneath a mirrored ceiling. The temple was run by scantily clad young women, modelled as Godesses, one of whom was rumoured to be Emma Lyon, who later became Lady Hamilton, mistress to Lord Nelson.
James Graham was not able to sustain this place in the fickle world of medical fashion. The temple proved to be a short-lived novelty, and 1781 he was forced to sell up the business and moved back to his hometown of Edinburgh. He continued to lecture on sexual health practises, but his subject matter was not well received in polite Edinburgh society, and resulted in his incarceration in the Tolbooth jail for public indecency as a result. In the later years of his life, Graham devoted more and more attention to his theories of longevity rather than procreation, advocating treatments involving earth bathing, and even wearing vests made of turf squares which he claimed would extend life to upwards of 150 years. According to Roy Porter, around this time Graham was possibly beginning to suffer some mental imbalance, and his lecturing became increasingly alternative:
After making his bow he seated himself on the stool; when two men with shovels began to place the mould in the cavity: as it approached to the pit of the stomach he kept lifting up his shirt, and at last he took it entirely off, the earth being up to his chin, and the doctor being left in puris naturalibus. He then began his lecture, expatiating on the excellent qualities of the Earth Bath, how invigorating etc. quite enough to call up the chaste blushes of the modest ladies.
Graham’s extensive regime did not have entirely the expected effect: he died suddenly in 1784, at the age of only 49.
On the surface it seems James Graham’s business was pure quackery, selling based on scandal and intrigue, with little medical backing to any of his claims, yet behind this façade the treatments he advocated were actually very orthodox and simple. His papers and lectures were not without their eccentricities – He abhorred prostitution, but equally said wives could learn a great deal from studying erotica, and encouraged men with unattractive spouses to close their eyes and imagine they were having sex with someone else. Still, his principles for the cure of impotency relied on a simple regime of washing regularly, telling women not to wear corsets or restricting clothing which damaged their insides, and leading a life of moderation, not excess. Despite his consistent engagement with the fashionable society, in common with regular physicians of the time such as Dr Trotter, Dr Battie and Dr Cullen, Graham believed debaucherous living was actually the cause of the ailments in society:
“it is an undoubted fact that the imbecility of men arises chiefly from high living, and debauchery, and the ill health of the ladies from high and sometimes too delicate living, from the fatigues and agitations of pride, passions, gaming and late hours”
So can we really dismiss James Graham as a quack? He may have used all the marketing tactics of the day to ensure his name reaches the heights of notoriety, but it was his attention-grabbing means and somewhat eccentric character which filled the headlines, and not his medical theory.
Roy Porter, ‘Graham, James (1745–1794)’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, 2004; online edn, Jan 2006 [http://www.oxforddnb.com/view/article/11199, accessed 13 Oct 2011]
H. Angelo, Reminiscences, 2 vols. (1828–30)
Roberts, Marie Mulvey “A Physic against death , eternal life and the enlightenment, gender and gerontology” in Porter, Roy and Roberts, Mary Mulvey (eds.) Literature and Medicine in the Eighteenth Century, London : Routledge, 1993
Haslam, Fiona Hogarth to Rowlandson: Medicine in Art in Eighteenth Century Britain Liverpool : Liverpool University Press, 1996