Dr James Graham: Sexologist and His Temple of Health

Dr James Graham trained in medicine and although he never graduated, he became a self-styled doctor who promoted unusual cures, pioneered sex therapy, and opened a Temple of Health. He began his medical career by setting up an apothecary in Doncaster, Yorkshire. Then in 1770, he left for America where he traveled around the middle American colonies working as an oculist and aurist.

“Dr James Graham going along the North Bridge in a High Wind,” caricature portrait from 1785 by John Kay. Author’s collection.

Graham settled in Philadelphia in November 1771. It was reported a year or so later that in his practice he performed a wide variety of oculist and aurist services. These were provided “gratis” to the poor and included such things as cataract surgery, placement of prosthetic eyes, and resolving hearing issues. One of his lengthy advertisement in 1772 read:

“[H]e may be consulted in all the disorders of the eye and its appendages, and in every species of deafness, thickness of hearing, ulcerations, noises in the ears, &c. ― Those persons likewise who have had the unspeakable misfortune of being born deaf and dumb, and those who labour under any impediment in their speech, by applying personally, will, probably be assisted.

Those persons whose eyes are utterly perished or sunk in their head, may have the deformity removed by artificial eyes, so curiously fixed and adapted to the orbits as to have (in appearance), the beauties, motion, &c. of the natural eye in its healthy state.

The structure and disease of those tender, sympathetic, and nearly connected organs, to which nature has assigned the most important offices of life, have, for many years particularly engaged his attention and practice; whence, regardless of vague conjectural hypotheses, he hath deduced, on rational principles, methods of cure, improved and confirmed by the most accurate observations, in a course of practice the most extensive, and, perhaps, the most successful of any of his contemporaries in Europe, or on this vast continent. The candid and intelligent inhabitants of these parts of the British colonies, can readily distinguish true merit from pretended knowledge; To conciliate therefore their favour, Dr. Graham begs leave to assure them, that, with tenderness and moderation, even to the poorest individual, his best ability shall, at all times be exerted to serve them.

Since his arrival in this city … four hundred and seventy patients have been cured, or relieved of … total, partial, and periodical blindness; weakness and dimness of sight; squinting; pain, swelling, and inflammation of the eyes; spots, specks, or films, occasioned by the small-pox, blows, or extraneous substances; weak, watry, red, spongy, and ulcerated eye-lids; falling off of the hairs of the eye-lashes, spasmodic twitchings; involuntary weeping of the tears; tumors and excrescences, fistuale lachrymales … Total and periodical deafness; hardness of hearing; pain and inflammations; painful sensations in consequence of loud sounds; cracking, itching, continual and remitting noises and sounds in the ears; offensive runnings occasioned by colds, swelling, swimming, picking and improper applications, or by long and severe sicknesses; insects and extraneous substances getting into the ears; ulcerations with caries of the bones; polypi, &c. ― and several persons born deaf and dumb, who had made very considerable advances in speaking and hearing, insomuch, that perfect cures will probably be effected.”[1]

Advertisement while in America for Dr James Graham. Author’s collection.

While in Philadelphia, Dr James Graham also learned the principles of electricity from Benjamin Franklin’s friend and collaborator, Ebenezer Kinnersley. Graham later wrote that it was also in Philadelphia where he began to develop the prototype for his Celestial Bed (a bed that helped with sterility and infertility issues) that would become the centerpiece of his famous Temple of Health and Hymen.

Before the American Revolution broke out, Graham left America and returned to England. He worked briefly in Bristol effecting “remarkable cures” and publishing recommendation letters from patients on how he had helped them. He then practiced for a time in Bath, the future home of novelist Jane Austen. He next opened a new practice in London, and it was there that the famous Horace Walpole consulted him on his gout problem.

In 1776, Dr James Graham went abroad and traveled in Holland, Germany, and Russia. When he returned, he set up a practice in Bath at apartment no. 4, South-Parade. Graham’s advertisements at the time recommended that people take his cures that consisted of “chemical essences, and aërial, aetherial, magnetic, and electrical vapours, baths, and applications.”[2]

Dr James Graham advertisement while working in Bath. Author’s collection.

Of these cures, the baths he provided not only included mud baths but also a type of bathing you might not expect, an earth bath. One gentleman whose uncle had undertaken the earth baths gave a description of them in 1858. The gentleman noted that because his uncle had been greatly affected by rheumatism, he sought out Dr James Graham, who then persuaded him to try an earth bath, which he claimed helped. As the uncle had since died, the nephew provided a description of what his uncle told him about his experience:

“The patient was led into the doctor’s garden there he took off his clothes behind a screen, stripping himself stark naked. He was then placed in a hole in the ground, just large enough to contain him; in what posture I do not recollect, but I think standing. Earth, finely sifted vegetable mould, was gently filled in quite up to the collar bone, the head and neck being free, and remaining out of the ground; the arms were buried, being placed close by his side. The patient being fairly in the bath, the screen was removed, and he commonly saw other person around him in a like situation with himself; and he passed the time, as well as he could in conversing with them; for it was necessary to remain three or four hours in the earth. … the sensation of heat was most oppressive; there was an unpleasant feeling of suffocation, and the perspiration profuse. When the time prescribed had expired, the screen was placed round him, the bather was taken out of his grave and well rubbed, and he was allowed to put on his clothes and to depart.”[3]

Dr James Graham - earth bathing

Earth bathing promoted by Dr James Graham. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

The uncle said earth bathing was so disagreeable, he could never summon the courage necessary to do it again. However, several of his friends continued to take frequent earth baths. Most of them thought Graham had helped them and that “the process was of great use to them.”[4]

Graham’s unusual cures, such as earth bathing, soon attracted famous patrons. For instance, besides Walpole another celebrity patient was the historian Catharine Macaulay. She probably became Graham’s patient partly because she married his younger brother William. Another well-known patron was Lady Spencer, mother of Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire. Graham acquired her as a patient in the summer of 1779, the same year that Eliza de Feuillide settled in France.

With all his success with earth bathing, word spread of his wondrous abilities. Dr James Graham therefore opened his first Temple of Health to heal the sick and the keep the well healthy. It was in a converted house in the center of a speculative development at the Adelphi, a district of the city of Westminster in London. A description of the interior appeared in the Dictionary of National Biography:

“His entrance hall was adorned with crutches and so forth disused by his patients. In upper room were large, highly decorated electrical machines, jars, conductors, and an ‘electrical throne,’ insulated on glass pillars, together with chemical and other apparatus. Sculpture, paintings, stained glass windows, music perfumes, and gigantic footmen were among the attractions. The ‘great Apollo apartment’ contained ‘a magnificent temple, sacred to health, and dedicated to Apollo.’ Here he gave lectures at high prices, opened his rooms as an expensive show to non-patients, and sold his medicines.”[5]

Patients poured into the Temple of Health paying a two-guinea fee to enter. Dr James Graham then treated patients with musical therapy, pneumatic chemistry, electricity, and magnetism. He also published marriage guidance material, gave medical lectures, and sold medicines such as “Electrical Aether” and “Nervous Aetherial Balsam.” In addition, gigantic porters nicknamed Gog and Magog, after the Guildhall Giants, greeted patrons as Graham performed alongside a succession of scantily clad Goddesses of Health, who displayed themselves as models of physical perfection.

Dr James Graham lecturing

Dr James Graham lecturing a crowd. Courtesy of U.S. National Library of Medicine.

Among the goddesses who Dr James Graham hired was Lady Emma Hamilton, an English model and actress, who is best remembered as the mistress of Horatio Nelson and became known as the muse to portrait artist George Romney. She served as goddess in 1781 and was described as a likeable, good-humored, and kind person although she was also said to have a loud, coarse voice. She became notorious because of her affair with Nelson much to the chagrin of his wife, Frances Nelson.

Lady Emma Hamilton as the goddess of health while being exhibited in that character by Dr James Graham in Pall Mall by Richard Cosway. Courtesy of Royal Museum Greenwich.

Although the gigantic porters and the scantily dress Goddesses might have been a draw at the Temple of Health, the key attraction was Graham’s “Celestial Bed.” He promised those who used it would be “blessed with progeny.” Moreover, he maintained that sterility or impotence could be cured by those who used it.

For those who slept in the twelve foot long by nine foot wide bed they paid a hefty fee for its use, £50 a night. The bed was said to be a gorgeous structure reputedly built by a tinman of Denton at a cost of £12,000. When the bed was in use it could be tilted at various angles while an orchestra accompanied the activities of the copulating couple who slept in the bed. A further description of the celestial bed was given by Mr. Sampson in 1882 in the Ulverston Mirror and Furness Reflector:

“It was beautifully carved and gilt, covered with silk damask, supported by twenty-eight glass pillars, and surmounted by a richly-carved and gilt canopy, from which crimson silk curtains, with fringe and tassels were suspended. … It is the first and only one in the world, or that ever existed. It is placed on the second floor, in a large and elegant hall … In a neighbouring closet is placed a cylinder, by which I communicate the celestial fire to the bed-chamber, that fluid which animates and vivifies all, and those cherishing vapours and oriental perfumes, which I convey thither by means of glass. The celestial bed rests on six massy and transparent columns; coverings of purple, and curtains of celestial blue surround it, and the bed-clothes are perfumed with the most costly essences of Arabia etc.”[6]

Dr James Graham - Celestial Bed

Depiction of Celestial Bed courtesy of artist Tim Hunkin.

Dr James Graham also provided a description of the celestial bed and the process in one of his lectures in 1783:

“The Grand Celestial State Bed! then gentlemen, which is twelve feet long by nine wide, is supported by forty pillars of brilliant glass, of great strength and of the most exquisite workmanship, in regard to shape, cutting, and engravings; sweetly delicate and richly variegated colours, and the most brilliant polish! … The sublime, the magnificent, and … the super-celestial dome of the bed, which contains the odoriferous, balmy, and ethereal spices, odours, and essences, and which is the grand magazine or reservoir of those vivifying and invigorating influences which are exhaled an dispersed by the breathing of the music, and by the attenuating, repelling, and accelerating force of the electrical fire, ― is very curiously inlaid or wholly covered on the under side with brilliant plates of looking-glass, so disposed as to reflect the various attractive charms of the happy recumbent couple …

On the top or summit of the dome, are placed … two exquisite figures, representing the marriage of Cupid and Psyche, with a fine figure of Hymen behind, and over them, with his torch flaming with electrical fire in one hand, and with the other, supporting a celestial crown, sparkling, likewise, with the effulgent fire over a pair of real living turtle-doves, who, on a little bed of roses, coo and bill under the super animating impulses of the genial fire! the elegant groups animating impulses of the genial fire! The other elegant groups of figure which sport on the top of the dome ― the Cupids, the Loves, and the Graces! ― besides festoons of the freshest and most beautiful flowers have each of them musical instruments in their hands, which by the exquisite and most expensive mechanism, are made to breathe forth sounds corresponding with the appearance of serval instruments, ― flutes, guitars, violins, clarinets, trumpets, horns, oboes, kettle-drums, &c. On the posts or pillars, too, which support the grand dome are groups of figures, musical instruments, organ-pipes, &c., which, in sweet concert with other instruments, at the commencement of the tender dalliance of the happy pair, breathe forth celestial sounds! lulling them in visions of elysian joys! opening new sources of pleasure, and untwisting all the chains which tie the hidden soul of harmony!;

At the head of the bed, in the full centre front, appears, sparkling with electrical fire though a glory of burnished and effulgent gold, the great, first, ever-operating commandment, BE FRUITFUL, MULTIPLY, AND REPLENISH THE EARTH! under this is a most elegant and sweet-toned organ, in front of which is a fine landscape of moving figures on the earth, birds flying, swans, &c., gliding on the waters, a fine procession, too, is seen, village nymphs strewing flowers before priests, brides, bridegrooms, and their attendants, who, all entering into the temple of Hymen, disappear from the delightful eye. …

In the celestial bed no feather bed is employed; sometimes mattresses filled with sweet new wheat or cut straw, with the grain in the ears, and mingled with balm, rose leaves, lavender flowers, and oriental spices, and, at other times, springy hair mattresses are used. Neither will you find upon the celestial bed linen sheets; our sheets are of the richest and softest silk or satin; of various colours suited to the complexion of the lady who is to repose on them. … and they are sweetly perfumed in the oriental manner, with otto and odour of roses, jessamine, tuberose, rich gums, fragrant balsams, oriental species, &c.; But to return, in order that I might have for the important purposes, the strongest and most springy hair, … the tails of English stallions, which when twisted, baked, and then untwisted, and properly prepared is elastic to the highest degree.  But the chief elastic principle of my celestial bed is by artificial loadstones. About fifteen hundred pounds’ weight of artificial and compound magnets are so disposed and arrange to be continually pouring forth in an ever-flowing circle inconceivable and irresistibly powerful tides of the magnetic effluxion, which is well known to have a very strong affinity with the electrical fire. …. moreover, all the faculties of the soul being so fully expanded, and so highly illuminated, that it is impossible, in the nature of things, but that strong, beautiful, brilliant, nay, double-distilled children, if I may use the expression, must infallibly be begotten.”[7]

Although Dr James Graham may have advocated the use of such aids in sex, he was a fierce critic of certain sexual practices, such as prostitution or masturbation, which he stated was wrong and that “every act of self-pollution is an earthquake—a blast—a deadly paralytic stroke.”[8] Ultimately, however, Graham’s idea related to his celestial bed was that the music, the subtle forces of electricity and magnets, and the odors and essences were the keys to achieve success by a copulating couple. That was because Graham believed his method united the spirit and the body in some sort of culminating rapturous union. And even stated:

“Thus, … by magnetism, by musical sounds, by subtle, active, cordial and balsamic medicines and chymical essense, and by positive and negative electricity arbitrarily used, I have as it were an absolute command over the health, functions and diseases of the human body.”[9]

Although Graham may have acquired some famous patients and although he recommended unusual remedies such as earth bathing and the celestial bed to achieve health, he soon found himself facing financial difficulties. He moved his Temple of Health from Adelphi in 1781 to Schomberg House, Pall Mall. He was bankrupt by 1782 and closed the Temple of Health at Pall Mall in 1783. By March of 1784 he had sold most of his possessions and what remained of his medical apparatuses he showed in Edinburgh after his return there.

Dr James Graham - The Aerostatick Stage Balloon

A satire on a balloon ascent titled, “The Aerostatick Stage Balloon,” that shows on the bottom row on the left the Goddess of Health and Dr James Graham. Courtesy of the Science Museum Group.

Around the mid-1780s Dr James Graham became a religious enthusiast. He also began defending the divinity of Jesus Christ against Unitarians such as Joseph Priestley, an English chemist, natural philosopher, separatist theologian, grammarian, multi-subject educator, and liberal political theorist. Graham believed that Priestley’s religious views were “hurtful” to the masses and he also maintained that Priestley’s suggestions of “Electrical Fire” and “produced Airs” could be “fatal.”

Joseph Priestley. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

To counter Priestley and others, Graham began to ramble about preaching his new theology that also involved his passion for vegetarianism. He then began to experiment with extended fasting to prolong his life. Perhaps his fasts later inspired the fasting woman of Tutbury, Ann Moore, and she went even further claiming she could live without food. Still Graham’s strange behavior caused him to find himself in trouble and at points confined to his house for lunacy.

On 23 June 1794 Dr James Graham died. It happened at in his home in Edinburgh and it was reported that his death occurred because of a blood vessel burst. The 49-year-old was buried a few days later in the Greyfriar’s churchyard, Edinburgh. The Cumberland Pacquet reported on his death stating in one brief line:

“The celebrated Dr. Graham died at Edinburgh on Monday the 23d ult. ― after a short illness.“[10]


  • [1] The Pennsylvania Packet, “Philadelphia, Sept. 30th, 1772,” October 12, 1772, p. 8.
  • [2] Bath Chronicle and Weekly Gazette, “Dr. Graham,” November 28, 1776, p. 2.
  • [3] Bradford Observer, “Earth Baths and Celestial Beds,” June 3, 1858, p. 7.
  • [4] Ibid.
  • [5] L. Stephen and S. Lee, Dictionary of National Biography 22 (London: Smith, Elder, & Co., 1885), p. 32.
  • [6] Ulverston Mirror and Furness Reflector, “Dr. Graham’s Celestial Bed,” June 24, 1882, p. 2.
  • [7] J. Davenport, Aphrodisiacs and Anti-aphrodisiacs (London: Privately Printed, 1869), p. 122–24.
  • [8] P. G. Boucé, ed., Sexuality in Eighteenth-century Britain (Manchester: Manchester Press, 1982), p. 17.
  • [9] A Sketch; or, Short Description of Dr Graham’s Medical Apparatus, etc. (London: Mr. Almon, 1780), p. 21.
  • [10] Cumberland Pacquet, and Ware’s Whitehaven Advertiser, “-,” July 1, 1794, p. 2.

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