Just watts the doctor ordered

AS THE doors to Dr James Graham’s mysterious Temple of Health creaked open, the sight which greeted the crowds of curious Georgian gents and their blushing ladies was nothing if not intriguing.

Beyond rows of crutches and walking sticks abandoned by owners who had been "cured" of all manner of ailments, and lurking behind scantily-clad "Goddesses", was the ultimate prize.

Dr Graham’s 12ft-wide tilting bed was lavish and extremely expensive - it is said to have cost the good doctor a whopping 10,000 to create - but for the desperate, childless and the sexually adventurous, the Edinburgh-born medic’s invention brought hope and, no doubt, put a smile on many despairing faces long before Viagra was invented.

For a rather hefty 50 a night, the sterile, impotent or simply curious aristocratic Georgians were guaranteed a cure to their sexual woes by way of an aromatic mattress, several powerful magnets and a jolt of electricity.

Whether anyone actually did conceive courtesy of Dr Graham’s wild invention is lost in the mists of time, but several of his other bizarre theories and ideas - and those of his fellow quacks - may sound familiar 250 years on.

Mud baths, vegetarianism, aromatherapy and electrotherapy are commonplace today, yet revolutionary for Dr Graham’s blue-blooded audience, drawn to his temple by celebrity endorsement and shrewd marketing.

He was just one of many quacks who combined showmanship with a gullible public to earn himself a place in medical history. But just who was Dr James Graham and how have his wacky health ideas evolved to affect us today?

Born the son of a saddler and raised in the Cowgate, he studied medicine at Edinburgh University only to drop out before graduation. Still he pursued a lifelong career in medicine which, combined with his charisma and talent for showmanship, made him the toast of Georgian society.

He was in his 20s when he emigrated to America, where the electrical experiments of Benjamin Franklin prompted his idea that "electricity invigorates the whole body and remedies all physical defects". By 1775, Dr Graham operated clinics in Bristol and Bath. Now it was time to open the lavish London Temple of Health and Hymen and reveal Dr Graham’s most bizarre invention of all - the celestial bed.

His name was already known to some of the cream of society - the Prince of Wales, Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire and British historian Catherine Macaulay - drawn to the smooth-talking Scot for his "famous aetherial and balsamic medicine" and his "elixir of life".

But that did little to prepare them for what they would find behind the creaking doors to his Temple of Health and Hymen. Payment of two shilling and sixpence allowed the curious to pass through the main hall and into one of the opulently decorated rooms, lit by scented candles and filled with erotic paintings.

While he delivered his lectures on health - or, more precisely, sexual health - Goddesses of Youth and Health, scantily clad young and attractive women, would pose provocatively in their virginal white silken robes. Among them was the Goddess Hebe Vestina, a 16-year-old former domestic servant named Amy Lyon, whose main role was to frolic naked leaping in and out of a mud bath which Dr Graham claimed would enable users to live to 150 years of age. Eventually, Amy would leave Dr Graham’s employ to re-emerge as Emma Hart, better known still as Nelson’s Lady Hamilton.

But it was the celestial bed that was the most intriguing of all of Dr Graham’s inventions. Stuffed with spices and essences, surrounded by "the exhilarating force of electrical fire", the bed certainly commanded its users to put on a spectacular performance.

"At the head of the bed appears sparkling with electrical fire a great first commandment: Be fruitful, multiply and replenish the earth", declares Dr Graham’s Temple brochure.

"No feather bed is employed, but sometimes mattresses filled with sweet new wheat or oat straw mingled with balm, rose leaves, lavender flowers and oriental spices," it continues.

"The sheets are of the richest and softest silk, stained sky blue, white and purple. Sometimes the mattresses are filled with the strongest, most springy hair, produced at vast expense from the tails of English stallions."

It also contained 15cwt of magnets and was built with a double frame, enabling it move on an axis and tilt at the vital moment to assist in conception.

"From a medical point of view he was not taken seriously at all," says writer Jacqui Lofthouse, who researched Dr Graham’s bizarre practices for her novel, The Temple of Hymen. "But he was a great figure in society at the time.

"You could liken his temple to today’s reality television, where there would be this fascination - it would be fashionable and a wonderful occasion as well as an element of titillation."

And although on the surface Dr Graham’s theories seem outrageous and bizarre, they may not be a million miles removed from some of today’s common practices, she adds.

"Some of the things he did can be linked to today," says Jacqui. "He was into eating seeds and nuts for health and lots of fresh air. A lot of what he advised is what you might hear advocated now."

Dr Graham is said by some to have invented the mud face-pack, vegetarianism and electrotherapy, still used in hospitals today.

His penchant for the use of celebrity endorsements and astute marketing of his Temple were also templates for today’s advertising campaigns.

Despite his theories, however, Dr Graham did not live to a ripe old age. As his Temple fell out of fashion he found himself poverty-stricken and back home in Edinburgh. Sinking into madness, he took his theories on food to the limit and released a publication: How to Live for Many Weeks or Months or Years Without Eating Anything Whatsoever - a theory adopted by today’s bizarre sect of breatharians, who claim to survive on light. Dr Graham died before he reached 150, some say from starvation, others from a ruptured blood vessel, yet his fame lives on.

PIONEERS NOT WHAT THEY SEEMED

AS The Healing Touch, the Scottish National Portrait Gallery’s major new exhibition of pioneering Scots and their role in the history of medicine reveals, not all medics were quite what they seemed.

Take James Morison, who set himself up as a pill manufacturer. His Universal Vegetable Pills first appeared in 1825. He declared they could purify the blood and hence the entire bodily system. Unfortunately one of the side-effects was death.

Imogen Gibbon, senior curator of the exhibition, says: "Even at the start of the 19th century not everyone had access to a conventional doctor. So if someone came along selling a cure then people often did believe them."

Which may be why Adam Donald achieved notoriety despite having had no medical training whatsoever. His speciality were lingering disorders said to be the result of witchcraft for which he prescribed his own treatments to be applied along with an often complicated ceremony.

It meant that when they failed, the patient could be blamed for failing to follow his guidelines.

• The Temple of Hymen by Jacqui Lofthouse is published by Penguin Books. The Healing Touch exhibition runs at the Scottish National Portrait Gallery from July 9 until November 27.