Odd this day

5 min readJun 23, 2024


23 June 1745

Well… it’s the 279th anniversary of the birth of ‘Dr’ James Graham, who opened a Temple of Health with a £50-a-night Celestial Bed which guaranteed pregnancy — and was later described by the British Medical Journal as “one of the most impudent quacks that ever lived”.

Contemporary print of the celestial bed — image shows ornately carved bed on golden pillars, with a dome over the top. In the bed lies a gratuitously topless woman, with one hand in her hair

Graham studied medicine in his hometown of Edinburgh, but probably didn’t graduate. He practised medicine, though, to the extent that a 1961 book, The Natural History of Quackery, devoted an entire chapter to him, under the marvellous title, ‘James Graham — Masterquack’.

He started out as an apothecary in Doncaster, went to America and learned about electricity, came back and started treating “valetudinarians who were suffering from newly fashionable ‘nervous disorders’” — or hypochondriacs, to use the technical term.

Graham’s treatments included so-called aethereal and balsamic medicines, milk baths, dry friction, and a technique of placing patients either on a ‘magnetic throne’ or in a bath through which electrical currents were passed. Although he was attacked as a quack, his cures won accolades.

The placebo effect really is a hell of a drug

He opened his Templum Aesculapium Sacrum, in the riverside Adelphi Buildings in May 1780, “decked out with elaborate electrical machines, jars, conductors… chemical and therapeutic apparatus. Statues, paintings, stained glass windows, music, perfumes…”

You had to pay to see all this, of course, although some accounts say you were also treated to “barely draped young models” as goddesses of health, one of whom might have been Emma Lyon

Emma Hamilton by Élisabeth Louise Vigée Le Brun. Portrait shows her leaning on a stone draped in animal skins, dressed as a bacchante or Ariadne, daughter of King Minos of Crete. She is draped in flimsy fabric, and wears an expression of sleepy satisfaction. There is a ship on the horizon behind her, possibly a reference to Nelson
…later better known as Lady Hamilton

His “magnificent and most powerful Medico-electrical Apparatus” apparently filled ten rooms, and he gave “genuinely libidinous lectures” and sold “Three Great Medicines”: Electrical Ether, Nervous Aetherial Balsam, and Imperial Pills.

He was also a big fan of dousing one’s gonads in cold water at every opportunity.

Excerpt, The Facts of Life, Roy Porter, Lesley Hall: “Graham argued ‘that next to abstaining from animal food and strong liquors, from venery, warm meat and drink, and from close rooms and feather beds, BATHING THEIR PRIVATE PARTS WITH COLD WATER THOROUGHLY AND FOR A LONG WHILE, EVERY NIGHT AND MORNING, FROM THE FIRST MONTH OF THEIR LIFE TO THE LAST HOUR OF THEIR EXISTENCE [is] of the highest importance to the preservation of their health and strength, beauty, and brilliancy…

The main thing, though, was the pregnancy-guaranteeing bed — illustrated here by Tim Hunkin:

Detailed diagram of the enormous four-poster celestial bed, topped by a sculpted dome, with a couple lying in it, looking at each other lovingly, while underneath, a team of men turn handles and work to make the mysterious mechanism operate

It was 12 feet long, 9 feet wide, “supported by forty pillars of brilliant glass of the most exquisite workmanship”, connected up (somehow) to 15 hundredweight of magnets, engraved “Be fruitful, multiply and replenish the earth”, and may have cost as much as £250 a night.

Graham was famed for his looks and charm, but one visitor was unimpressed. Horace Walpole thought him

the most impudent puppet-show of imposition I ever saw, and the mountebank himself the dullest of his profession, except that he makes the spectators pay a crown apiece.

But no one ever went broke underestimating the public’s need to believe in charlatans, especially if they have a gift for marketing. Graham got so famous, there was even a show about him at the Haymarket: The Genius of Nonsense, portraying him as ‘Emperor of the Quacks’.

There was even a satire he’s suspected of having written himself — presumably being an early believer in the idea that all publicity is good publicity

Libertines and debauchees / Thither haste with knocking knees; / Genial and prolific fires, / Shall wake your pulse to new desires; / Tho’ your embers should be dead, / Stretch on his celestial bed; / Soon you’ll feel the vital flame, / Rushing thro’ your icey frame!
from Roy Porter and Lesley Hall’s ‘The Facts of Life’

There was also this not entirely subtle cartoon of him and rival Gustavus Katterfelto:

“The two notorious quacks of the period”, Graham [left] and Katerfelto [right], each standing on a stage. Graham stands astride a long cylinder, supported on a vase-shaped pillar inscribed ‘insulated’; each foot rests on a circular stool supported on a vase-shaped pillar — the glass insulators he used in his electrical demonstrations. The cylinder is inscribed ‘Prime conductor Gentle restorer Largest in the World’, and is distinctly phallic. Katerfelto crouches over a cylindrical conductor

He later moved premises to the less posh Pall Mall, although no one can agree whether this was because he was in debt, or the original ‘temple’ couldn’t cope with the crowds. His prices were lower at the new ‘Temple of Hymen’, though, and his property seized in 1782 due to debt.

So, maybe you can go broke underestimating the… etc. He kept going, of course, lecturing, and eventually setting up a new establishment devoted to ‘earth bathing’, where he would lecture buried up to his chin.

Earth bathing, captioned “a new way of preserving health and beauty”, and showing Graham standing to the left with a cane, while a man stands next to him with a shovel near an open pit. To the right, there is a fully dressed female client, or potential client, and at the back, three women in various stages of undress, and buried at various depths
Earth bathing by Rowlandson — shows a large named man climbing into a box, presumably to have earth piled on top of him. A woman standing behind him seems to be brushing his skin with a broom. Various other figures are buried around the room

In 1911, the British Medical Journal conceded that he had some ideas which stood up to scrutiny. “As far as we know, he was one of the first to preach the gospel of the open window”, for example. There was exercise, cleanliness, and diet — and restraint.

He declaims against, “strong, intoxicating, fiery liquors, especially … that poisonous composition …neat Port wine, and which is certainly one of the greatest bracers or holders together of the incorporated cattle of Great Britain! The great curdler and feast vomit of those … all-devouring herds! and which is, moreover, one of the principal causes of gout, gravel, rheumatism, asthmas, and apoplexies!” He forbids excess even in drinking “the mildest, most genuine, and most generous wines.”

One aspect of such restraint was his opposition to ‘venery’ (aka being a shagger) — Graham was all about fulfilled lives for married couples. So he was also dead against the Very Great Sin of… touching oneself. He went on about it at some length…

every act of self-pollution; is an earthquake — a blast — a deadly paralytic stroke, to all the faculties of both soul and body! striking on an irrecoverable chip from the staff of life; blasting beauty! chilling, contradicting, and enfeebling body, mind and memory! cutting off many years from the natural term of their life! Rather than begin, or continue this vile, soul and body destroying practice — this rebellion against, and murdering of nature, I would advise young persons to anything… indeed, I would seriously advise them at once, to put an end to their existence! for this horridly unnatural — this infernal — this all-blasting practice of self-pollution, and drunkenness, are the inlet to, or the aggregate of all the vices and curses, of soul and body, of time and eternity — bound up in one damning — one more than diabolical bundle

Thanks to all these varied medical therapies, “he claimed to be … in such good health that he would live for 150 years”. Sadly for him, though, he published his last pamphlet in 1793, aged just 47.

Graham’s last pamphlet opens with an affidavit made on 3 April 1793, that from the last day of December 1792 to 15 January 1793 he neither ate nor drank, nor took anything but cold water, sustaining life by wearing cut-up turfs against his naked body and by rubbing his limbs with his own nervous aethereal balsam. He died suddenly, at his house opposite the Archer’s Hall, Edinburgh, on 23 June 1794, and was buried in Greyfriars churchyard, Edinburgh.

Mmm. On reflection, I think this might be a lovely day for a pint.




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