“Originality is not achieved by striving for it.” This is one of my favorite quotes. To me this means that the only way we can be original is to simply be ourselves. The moment we strive to be original our efforts end up morphing into a mess because we’re trying to be something we’re not. We lose the plot and our efforts (whatever they might be) end up…unoriginial. James Graham, an 18th century medical doctor who specialised in sexual health, was not only original but ahead of his time in many respects. Given the finite knowledge any good doctor actually had about the human body in the 1780’s a lot of medical care was either down to medical customs (sometimes more deadly than the ailment) or unfounded, untested quackery. Bascially, anyone who could afford to attend medical classes and make himself sound like a doctor…could set himself up as a doctor. The medical profession of the 18th century was a dog eat dog world where common sense and cleanliness were not necessarily admired. James Graham, a Scotsman who grew up in Edinburgh, had a dream to be a famous doctor to the great and good in London, but he had one large problem. He was nobody and knew no one who could introduce him to the people who could help him become somebody.
I suspect he didn’t spend many minutes wallowing in despair at his lack of social connections. Once he had a vision of exactly what he wanted to learn and do, he set out to achieve his goals with panache and style regardless of emotional or financial cost.
One of the subjects that really fascinated Graham as a doctor, and clearly as a man, was sex and the process of generation. The man could apparently wax lyrical for hours on the subject, but his dream was so much more than fame and wealth. He not only wanted to be a famous doctor, he wanted to change the world. He wanted to teach people how he believed they could live longer healthier lives and have healthier children. He aparently believed it was his calling to improve the health of the Nation.
I love the weird and the bizarre, the 18th century and reading about love, relationships and all that goes with it; but before reading a book review on this book I’d never heard of James Graham or his Celestial Bed. Why hadn’t I heard of this man? I find that in itself bizarre. This man did something truly amazing; against all the odds he lived his dream…at least for a few years. Graham never stopped learning or developing his theories and ideas even while he was having some sort of psychotic breakdown, but this was a man who couldn’t be silenced or defeated. I wish I could have met him!
He must have been exhausting to be around; a restless man with almost endless stamina. We know he enjoyed having sex because he gave his opinion on it in his lectures, but how did he find time to see all his patients (and he treated all levels of society), give his lectures, eat, sleep, write all his books, write his advertisements, find time to dream how he could better his designs or theorize, read his bible which apparently he did every day and actually practice what he preached? Apparently he did! James Graham was an original who lived an amazing life because he insisted on being himself. He burned like a rare meteor through the latter years of his century. Ironicly, many of his precepts for living a healthy life (which many of his contemporaries scoffed at) are now scientifically proven to be beneficial.
If you love the 18th century, medical history, or just the plain weird and bizarre you’ll love this book!
I give it four out of five stars. It would have had five stars except I thought the chapters were too long. This sounds really nit-picky but the chapters are on average 30 pages and their length irritated me. The first two chapters which go into detail about the development of electricity and its use in medical and society are particularly long and dry, but worth reading as otherwise one might not understand what Graham is doing to his patients later in the book. I also wanted more pictures or diagrams to show me exactly how these electrical devices worked (because I’m a visual person). If more detail pictures of the interior of Graham’s Temple of Hymen exist I would have liked to see them as well. And there was no picture of the bed which was disappointing. I also would have liked to have had some excerpts from Graham’s Lectures of Generation at the end to get a more lenghty flavour of being in his head, but that’s just me. It was a really good biography. It brings to life a man who deserves to be remembered and by illuminating the man Syson illuminates the world he lived in. I think she did an amazing job. I highly reccomend it!