Tuesday, August 12, 2008

Dr Graham and The Sex Machine

There have been many quack doctors in the past but the most notorious of the 18th century is arguably Dr James Graham. It’s hard to even know where to start with this character so I will just introduce him as a typical celebrity. Like our contemporary celebrity doctor, Dr Phil, Graham didn’t entirely know what he was talking about, and people didn’t necessarily believe him yet he still had flocks of people flooding to his practice, mostly the rich and celebrities.

The Scottish doctor had a rather nomadic start. After going to medical school (notice I didn’t say ‘graduating’) he moved to the American colonies where he learned some electricity basics from Ben Franklin’s friend. He turned his tail and ran at the first hint of revolution and ended up in a variety of European cities, gaining a name for himself along the way. His specialty: sex therapy.

By 1779 Graham had acquired enough press and money and in 1780 he was able to open his infamous Temple of Health. It cost a crown for admittance and modest ladies were given masks at the door so their privacy was preserved and gossip could not be spread about infertility. Among gaudy gilded decorations and soft playing music, guests would listen to Graham’s pretentious lectures in his auditorium. This usually ended with a sharp electric jolt from their seat which was supposed to cure impotence and infertility. Graham employed lovely assistants as his ‘Goddesses of Health’ and they dressed scantily in Classical drapery. It has been rumoured that Emma Hamilton was one of these Goddesses but her biographer Flora Fraser argues against this gossip.

The Temple was a success and allowed him to build the Temple of Hyman in Pall Mall which in 1781 housed his invention, the Celestial Bed. The electro-magnetic bed was available to desperate couples attempting to conceive who could afford the £50 charge; about £3,000 today. Gilt dragons adorned the bed along with the saying (in Latin) “It is a sad thing if a rich man has no heir to his property.” To the sounds of music, a couple would make love on the bed while “magnetic fire” was pumped into the room. While the couple watched themselves copulate from the mirror on the bed’s canopy a tilting inner-frame helped position them in the best stance for conceiving.
Of course on top of using this bed, customers were urged to buy Graham’s special products to further aid in conceiving an heir.

Celebrities were drawn to the temples like moths to the flame. Even ones like the Prince of Wales, who obviously didn’t need any help conceiving, were known to frequent Graham’s creations. It was just the “in” thing to do. After years of miscarriages Georgiana and the Duke went to the temple in hopes of producing an heir, to no avail. Other celebrities who were associated with the temples were Charles James Fox, Elizabeth Armistead, the Duke of Richmond, and John Wilkes. Mary Robinson’s reputation began to disintegrate after it became public knowledge that she was a patron of the quack. Not because he was a quack but because he was a sex-quack!

Like with most celebrities, what comes up must come down and this was the case with Graham as well. He went bankrupt in 1782 with the help of The Morning Herald and James Gillray’s campaigns against his quack-practice. Plus it probably didn’t help that his methods didn’t actually work either. He was imprisoned for debt and then went insane and died in 1794.

In this satirical print, Graham is flanked by his famous customers including Fox (center), Mary Robinson and Grace Ellitot (top)


  1. I hardly know what to say about this enterprising fellow, except that he followed in the footsteps of a great many quacks and charlatans.

  2. For the full dirt on Graham's extraordinary life, look out for Lydia Syson's new book, "Doctor of Love: James Graham and his Celestial Bed", (Alma Books, September 2008)

  3. Thanks for the recommendation, that book will now be on my never-ending queue!