Medical Meanderings 21 May 2008
“[John R. Brinkley and Mrs. Brinkley are] two of the finest people and the greatest benefactors to mankind on earth…I wear goat glands and am proud of it.”
U.S. Senator Wesley Staley (D - CO), 1922
By 1930, John Brinkley was the millionaire founder of the Brinkley Institute of Health (containing the Brinkley-Jones Hospital, Brinkley-Jones Associates, the Brinkley Research Laboratories and the Brinkley Training School for Nurses) in Milford, Kansas, and host of the “Medical Question Box” on KFKB, the most popular radio station in the United States. He had powerful friends, including the Vice President of the United States, and was considering a run for governor of Kansas.
He was also the most dangerous charlatan in America. Brinkley, born in 1885, had at first attempted to go to medical school in Chicago in 1908. At the time, the idea of standardized medical training was far from widely accepted. Although experimentally-based, “allopathic” physicians were dominant in America, there were dozens of other schools teaching the gospels of osteopathy, chiropractic, homeopathy, herbs and more. Brinkley settled on the Bennett Eclectic Medical College. Eclectic medicine relied largely on herbs and taught several ideas ahead of their time, but also included a lot of pseudoscientific guesswork. After dropping out due to excessive drinking and leaving his first wife, Brinkley had several false starts including a stint as an “electro-medic” in South Carolina and as a general practitioner in Arkansas (after buying a medical diploma from the Eclectic Medical University of Kansas City). Finally, his big break came in 1917.
One strong trend of American quackery in the early 20th century was “gland therapy” for that most perennial of human afflictions—sexual inadequacy. The thinking ran thus: animals like chimpanzees and goats are sexually…vital. If we can take the animal’s testicle and get it into the human body, it will make its recipient similarly vital. I am not kidding. So, people who would not buy a second-hand Model A Ford without skeptical evaluation were gullibly risking their health ingesting and injecting goat glands. Brinkley saw an opportunity. A farmer named Stittsworth complained of “no pep.” Brinkley surgically implanted goat testicles in Mr. Stittsworth’s scrotum. The farmer paid and went home. Two weeks later, the farmer returned with a smile and new vigor, and word spread. Dr. John Brinkley’s goat-gland practice was born.
Author Pope Brock tells Brinkley’s full, incredible story in his excellent new book, Charlatan: America’s Most Dangerous Huckster, the Man Who Pursued Him, and the Age of Flimflam. Brinkley’s dubious career was paralleled by that of Dr. Morris Fishbein, associate editor of the Journal of the American Medical Association, who determinedly crusaded to bring Brinkley down and in so doing became the most famous “quack-buster” of his day.
Brinkley’s career ended on March 30, 1939, when he lost a lawsuit against Fishbein during which his scams and hokum were fully exposed. When he died in 1942, Brinkley had killed 42 patients at his hospital, not to mention those who were discharged and died later, nor those harmed or killed by his bad advice and fake remedies sold on the radio. He was still one of the most popular men in the United States. In our age of weight-loss remedies, sexual tonics, various gurus pushing supposed cures “your doctor won’t tell you about,” and other nonsense, Brinkley’s story should be cautionary for all of us.