Happy Deathday, Joseph Mortimer Granville!

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(Wellcome Library)

A few years ago I published a paper (available open access here) on the anti-temperance writings of Joseph Mortimer Granville (1833-1900), a Victorian doctor and writer who died on this day. Granville was a peculiar man, and his work included both useful contributions to medicine and outrageous quackery and self-promotion. He wrote/edited the report of the Lancet’s Commission on Lunatic Asylums in 1877, but he was also a London ‘Society physician’ with clients like Stafford Henry Northcote (then Conservative leader in the Commons, later first earl of Iddesleigh). He wrote many letters to the papers, as well as a series of self-help books suggesting cures for sleeplessness, the common cold, and excessive dreaming. (A selection: Minds and Moods: Gossiping papers on mind-management and morals; ‘Fish as food and physic’; ‘Dreams and the making of dreams’; ‘The wooing of sleep.’) The idea that wearing a night-cap could keep dreams away tickled Funny Folks:

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Funny Folks mocks Granville’s peculiar cures with some other ‘Queen Anne-Tidotes’ (1884)

In 1891 Granville wrote to the Times to argue that the British public were not drinking anything like enough alcohol, and that moderation was making them sick and shortening their lives. Given the tone of contemporary arguments about licensing and drinking, Granville’s letter provoked considerable debate. I was interested in where this decidedly unfashionable opinion had come from  – I would argue that mainstream medical opinion was much more likely to promote moderate drinking at this point. I set out to look at the different ways in which Granville had encountered, worked with, and written about alcohol throughout his life. This suggested that his quackery was partly the result of a need to find alternative sources of income in a society where there were too many doctors – his first practice had ended in failure, after all – and that his antipathy to temperance was at least partly influenced by his politics (he described himself as “a Tory in Science as in Politics” in 1885). Granville’s 1891 attacks on temperance chimed with popular prejudices, and as the Devon and Exeter Daily Gazette noted:

“Whoever comes out of this controversy badly, it is certain Dr Granville will not suffer. … [Society] will flock to a medical man who will not cut off their liquor, and presumably also reduce their other enjoyments, as is now the custom of most of our great doctors. … Dr Granville will become a most popular doctor after this bold disclosure of his.”

Granville’s name appeared in newspaper ‘puffs’ or blurbs advertising port, where he suggested that it was a suitable drink for invalids if drunk from the wood, not the bottle. Elsewhere he argued that cider made from the right kinds of apples would be good for rheumatism and digestion. The suggestion that everyone should be drinking a bottle of champagne a day was just an extension of this line of reasoning. Conservative publications like Punch were predictably delighted:

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The first part of Punch’s response to Mortimer’s attack on temperance, in limerick form

However despite Granville’s notoriety, he is unfortunately better known for something he didn’t do: the internet thinks he invented the vibrator in order to treat women’s hysteria. This idea, first suggested by Rachel P. Maines and amplified by Tanya Wexler’s film Hysteria (2011), has taken root so firmly across the internet that it may now be impossible to dislodge. Historian Fern Riddell has done her best to eradicate it but it keeps reappearing. This makes it harder to research the historical JMG, and really I probably shouldn’t even be writing about him.  But while there are many things I don’t like about the historical Granville, I prefer him to the internet-historical version. He did invent a ‘percuteur’ to treat neuralgia between 1877 and 1881, but he was not really interested in hysteria, as this passage from his Nerve-vibration and excitation as agents in the treatment of functional disorder and organic disease (1883) makes clear:

“I should here explain that, with a view to eliminate possible sources of error in the study of these phenomena, I have never yet percussed a female patient, and have not founded any of my conclusions on the treatment of hysterical males. … I have avoided, and shall continue to avoid, the treatment of women by percussion, simply because I do not want to be hoodwinked, and help to mislead others, by the vagaries of the hysterical state or the characteristic phenomena of mimetic disease.” (my emphasis)

Maines interprets this as a sign of Granville’s nervousness about the morality of treating women in this way; I think he meant that “the vagaries of the hysterical state” in both men and women made it hard to diagnose. We might now say hysteria proved rather difficult to ‘medicalize’, and that Granville was trying to stay well clear of the topic for that reason rather than any qualms about its use as a ‘vibrator.’ ‘Hysteria’ and ‘hysterical’ appear precisely ten times in this 128 page book; neither term is included in the index. Sometimes a massager is just a massager, as Siggy might have said, and Granville’s massager was squarely aimed at men.

And finally: no, I have never seen a source for that image of Granville google throws up. And I am pretty sure he didn’t look like Hugh Dancy. Maybe if we checked our sources more carefully we’d be a little clearer about what we did and didn’t know about the nineteenth century…