Sexperts: Amorous Antics of Dubious Docs Throughout the Centuries

by Barry Baldwin

(Reprinted with the kind permission of: Stitches, The Journal of Medical Humour)

(From Brian Johnston's I Say, I Say, I Say: A young woman said to her dentist, I don't know which is worse, having a tooth done or having a baby. Well, he said, make up your mind before I adjust the chair.) Greek doctors were a randy lot. Otherwise, Hippocrates would not have devoted space in his Oath to promoting chastity in physicians and the ban on taking sexual advantage of their patients, female or male. The Oath is taken to Apollo - how many modern medics actually believe in this deity, one of the most bisexually libidinous of Olympians, a suitable role model?

Sexual misdemeanours helped account for Hippocrates' lament in his Canon that medicine had become the most disreputable of the professions, the root cause being that its practitioners were not subject to malpractice penalties. This may console modern ones as they gloomily shell out their insurance premiums.

Doctors presumably ignored their Master's statement in his Aphorisms (whence our word) that young men only get gout after intercourse. Still, he had more encouraging advice for geriatrics in cold climates: "sexual intercourse should be more frequent in winter, especially for older men" - as a sexagenarian in Canada, I'm happier to follow this rather than Hesiod's instruction to avoid your wife in summer because she is then too lecherous.

Pliny rants about Roman doctors' adulteries in high places, e.g. Eudemus with the dowager Livia and Vettius Valens with the empress Messalina. In our age, he would have been sniffing around the physicians of Diana and Fergie.

Martial penned this cutting epigram on the folly of competing with your doctor in a love triangle:

When patient and doctor want the same wife,
This is what befalls:
The doctor wins by using his knife,
The patient loses his balls.

The latter would be unconsoled by Hippocrates' assurance that eunuchs suffer neither gout nor baldness. What, though, would the Father of Medicine make of the journal Pediatrics' (July 2000) labelling of ambiguous genitalia as "a social emergency?"

Another glimpse of the Roman doctor's erotic role is afforded by this Pompeian graffito extolling a gladiator's macho image: "Crescens is a real doctor, he takes care of the morning girls, the night girls, and all the others."

One item in the ancient jokebook Philogelos has an onlooker call to a doctor massaging a girl, "Stay on the outside, don't go inside," ancestor of modern schoolboy pleasantries about the dentist filling the wrong cavity.

Dubious docs were part of the 18th Century's classical heritage. Pride of place goes to James Graham (1745-1794). Despite failing medicine at Edinburgh, he called himself Doctor, prudently flitting first to America where he set up as an eye specialist, then back to London in 1775, to galvanise high society with his 'Electric Medicine', delivering jolts through crowns and chairs. In 1779, he opened his Temple of Health, where for two guineas people could inspect his electrical paraphernalia, buy his medicines, and ogle the skimpily-dressed 'nurses,' one of whom was Lord Nelson's future Lady Hamilton.

For fifty pounds a night, couples could use his Celestial Bed, guaranteed to boost potency and promote conception. These miracles resulted from the electrified headboard's production of "a magnetic fluid calculated to give the necesary degree of strength and exertion to the nerves." A suitably erotic aura was created by the tiltable bed's dimensions (12x9 feet), flower-stuffed mattress, background live music, and overhead mirror - eat your heart out, Hugh Hefner.

Despite initial éclat, the debt-ridden Graham fled back to Edinburgh in 1784, abjured electrical erotica, and now promoted mud baths as nutritious panacea, claiming their use allowed you to live without food, a sale's pitch well designed for canny Scots. When these bogged down, Graham founded the New Jerusalem Church (total membership: one), ended all pronouncements with the slogan Oh, Wonderful Love, and died in 1794 after being arrested for going naked in the streets, poor policy in a climate that Robert Louis Stevenson dubbed "the vilest under heaven's fair dome."

Graham earned his four columns in the Dictionary of National Biography. Nowadays, he would be CelestialBed How savvy were 18th-Century punters? Contemporary cartoons and literature were full of quack-exposures and gibes at their sex-capades, e.g. Rowlandson's Doctor Double Dose is depicted taking a comatose crone's pulse with one hand while fondling a pretty wench with the other, the bedside table's opium and Composing Draught boding further ill for the patient. One big-name doctor denounced his colleagues, Bernard Mandeville in his Fable of the Bees: "Physicians valued fame and wealth/Above the drooping patient's health,/Or their own skill..."

The hardest of hearts, though, would be melted by Sam Johnson's doctor-protégé Robert Levet, tricked into marriage by a mercenary ("she regarded him as a physician already in considerable practice") tart after sexual congress in the coal-bunker where he lived, then running off leaving him saddled with her debts before being tried and acquitted at the Old Bailey for pick-pocketry, foiling Levet's expressed hope that she be hanged. Not surprisingly, "a separation between the ill-starred couple took place."

Vendors of aphrodisiacs and nostrums for sexual problems from impotence to venereal diseases found no shortage of suckers. The Morning Post (1776) trumpeted a 'Bath Restorative' as "admirable for those worn out by women and wine. Where persons are not early happy in their conjugal embraces it will render their intercourse prolific. Those who have impaired their constitution by self-abuse will find themselves a certain remedy." Knocks the hell out of Viagra. Similar promises to worn-out wankers were made by Solomon's Balm of Gilead and Brodium's Cordials.

Veronese doctor Girolamo published (1530) an elegant commercial, his poem Syphilis, in which the eponymous hero is punished by Apollo (dodgy behaviour for the God of Healing) with a "pestilence unknown" producing sores that only quicksilver (whence 'quacksalver') could wash away. This became the proverbial ("a night with Venus, a lifetime with Mercury") remedy; Boswell's doctors prescribed it for his constant claps. London surgeon Thomas Taylor countered with Leake's Patent Pills which (he claimed) had healed a seaman blind, deaf, and paralysed by VD. His newspaper ads promised "inviolable secrecy, with back door and lights in the passage at night" - ancestor of our All Goods Shipped In Plain Brown Envelope. A competitor, Dr Richard Rock, ostensibly pulled teeth in Goose Lane to mitigate the embarrassment of customers seen going in to get his "Cure without the knowledge of a bedfellow." In 2000, a London exhibition, Women Under The Knife, stressed 19th-Century gynaecology's "unnecessary operations and mutilations done in the belief that all female maladies originated in the reproductive organs." Such thinking was exemplified by Dr Charles D. Meiggs (1792-1869) of Philadelphia, proud that "in this country there are women who prefer to suffer the extremity of danger and pain rather than waive those scruples of delicacy which prevent their maladies from being explored." Conan Doyle (1881) encountered "a frightful horror of a patient - she won't let me examine her chest" - in modern jargon, Patient Autonomy. Ladies like her, and Harriet Wynne who (1803) complains "Dr Williams made me undergo a BLUSHING examination," will have approved Dr William Goodell (1829-1894) of Pennsylvania, who taught his students to keep their eyes fixed on the ceiling while making vaginal examinations.

A non-surgical alternative to mutilation was offered by Lydia Pinkham (1873) of Massachusetts in the shape of her Pinkham's Vegetable Compound, marketed as The Greatest Remedy In The World for "female weaknesses."

There can be no two greater contrasts than Dr John Harvey Kellogg's (1852-1943) invention of the cornflake "to numb all tastebuds from tongue to toe" as part of his anti-sex campaign, and English medic George Witt's (1803-1865) Sunday morning 'Sermons' on his collection of 434 phallic artefacts.

Marcel Proust's father penned several tomes on fitness and hygiene. His younger brother, having survived being run over by a five-ton coal wagon, wrote The Surgery of the Female Genitalia, while his penchant for prostatectomies was such that they were nicknamed Proustatectomies. Marcel's own taste for aphoristic laws of human nature and diagnostic narratives of minutiae recall Hippocrates; A La recherche du Temps Perdu has been characterised as the recovery of the often sexual past as cure for the universal malady, Time.

In Proust's Paris, arsenic was a doctor-recommended aid to maintaining erections. Their mediaeval colleagues had counselled wives to put salt on their husbands' genitals to increase their virility: Vive La France. As background to his Cider House Rules, John Irving published (1999) a memoir that celebrates his obstetrician grandfather, Frederick Irving, whose writings ranged from a laconic case history ("Mrs Berkeley contributed nothing to the world except her constipation") to the Ballad of Chambers Street describing the catastrophic abortion of promiscuous Rose's unwanted pregnancy by Harvard gynaecologist Charles Green. John Irving dared print only "the two least offensive stanzas" of "this poem of astonishing lewdness and vulgarity, both anti-Semitic and deeply obscene:

High in a suite in Chambers Street,
Ere yet her waters broke,
From pregnant Rose they took her clothes
And ne'er a word they spoke.
They laid her head across the bed,
Her legs they had to bend 'em.
With sterile hands they made demands
To Open her pudendum.

The introitus admits my fist
Without the slightest urgin'.
Therefore I ween, said Charlie Green,
That Rose is not a virgin.
And I would almost dare declare
That she has had coition,
Which in the main would best explain
Her present sad condition.

Golfing doctors may seek solace in Golf and the Spirit by psychiatrist-therapist M. Scott Peck, whose aphorisms include "a perfect drive feels orgasmic, when I hit one I get a great erection" - evidently the good doctor has got sex down to a tee. He has a rival in psychiatrist Phil Lee's golf manual Shrink Your Handicap - this doctoral duo should play a round.

We must have some Canadian content, so step forward Dr Robert Stubbs (Maclean's, 12 June 2000) with his vaginal rejuvenations and penile enlargements, to which I offer this doggerel tribute:

Men, if your dongs are not very long,
If your pricks are mere little grubs,
Cheer up, you can look like King Kong,
After just one visit to Stubbs.

Girls, if you're from Saudi Arabia,
Stubbs can re-jig your labia.
If your boy-friends are urgin'
That you prove you're a virgin,
Then for your wedding-bed
Wear a Stubbs maidenhead.

If Hippocrates (whose name was assumed in the 1960s by a 'hip' MD dispensing sexual tips in an underground newspaper) is looking down (or up), what does he make of the award (National Post, 13 June 2000) of $30.000 damages to exotic dancer Mary Gale who sued Dr Elliott James for ruining her career by using breast implants to enhance her buttocks? - clearly a case of Arse-on.

(From I Say, I Say, I Say: Kiss me, Doctor. Kiss you? That would be quite unethical. Strictly speaking, I shouldn't even be in bed with you.)

© 2006 by Barry Baldwin



About the Author

Barry Baldwin was born in 1937 and educated in England. He emigrated to Australia in 1962, re-moving to Canada in 1965, where he is Emeritus Professor of Classics, University of Calgary, and a Fellow of the Royal Society of Canada. He has published around 30 short stories in print (magazines and book anthologies), and has a novella, "Not Cricket", in Chapbook form (Rembrandt & Company Press, USA), also in e-zines. He has been a Finalist in the Arthur Ellis Awards (Canada 1999) and the Anthony Awards (Bouchercon, 2000, USA) in the mystery short story category.


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