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The Story of Dr. John “Goat Gland” Brinkley

Published: May 25, 2010

Author Pope Brock tells the intriguing story of one Dr. John R. Brinkley in his recently published work, Charlatan: America’s Most Dangerous Huckster, the Man Who Pursued Him, and the Age of Flimflam. As a surgeon, politician, radio pioneer, entrepreneur and conman, Dr. John R. Brinkley embodies the American spirit in its ugly and amoral base incarnation. Counter to this man was Dr. Morris Fishbein of the Journal of the American Medical Association, who had made it his lot in life to track down and eliminate the quackery that beset early American medicine. What followed was a cat and mouse game that spanned several countries and nearly two decades.

Dr. Doug and Pope Brock discussed the story of “Goat Gland” Brinkley on Dr. Doug’s radio show Radio Parallax which originally aired on August 20th, 2009. Radio Parallax can be heard Thursday evening from 5:00 p.m. to 6:00 p.m. on KDVS 90.3 FM in the Sacramento/Davis area.

PB: Thanks for having me.

RP: Please describe the state of American medicine a century ago when Brinkley got started.

PB: American medicine was pretty much chaos as late as the 20’s and 30’s. The AMA had little power. There were all kinds of different schools of medicine, at various levels of quality, and lots and lots of quacks. Mainstream medicine was struggling as thousands of these fiefdoms were fighting each other. There was no central regulation to speak of.

RP: I was stunned to learn in your book that at the end of the 19th century most states repealed licensing requirements for doctors!

PB: (Laughing) Yeah, wasn’t that something? Blame Andrew Jackson. He came in as the “common man,” the first president representing the log cabin type of American. Everybody got so enthusiastic about that they said: “Let’s give every man a chance!” All but three states – by the early 1830s – actually repealed licensing requirements for doctors. You can imagine what that turned into.

RP: Brinkley decided at some point to get a medical degree. He had options on schools, but today we’d call their medicine “alternative practices”.

PB: He decided he wanted a medical degree, I think more out of business reasons, to make himself more credible rather than to learn anything. As a teen in North Carolina he was already selling patent medicines off the back of a wagon. His career path was set early on, but he figured at some point that a diploma would help. He never got one incidentally – but did go to a medical school (of sorts) in Chicago for three years around 1910. Brinkley spent more time in bars than in class, however, then finally decided it was easier to simply buy a diploma.

RP: I guess the surgeon that was teaching Brinkley failed him due to he said: “His attendance not being regular and because of his indulgence to alcohol”. (chuckles)

PB: Brinkley shrugged it off and went ahead. He had seized upon radio early on and was able overpower anyone who raised their voice against him simply by cranking up the wattage.

RP: He lost his license after his competency was challenged. He demonstrated his surgical wizardry for colleagues and failed to convince them. Talk about how he had become “Goat Gland” Brinkley.

PB: This was what put him on the map. He’d knocked around a bit just after the turn of the century. He was as a so-called “electromedic” doctor trying various minor quackeries, searching for the thing that would make his fortune. At this time there was a buzz internationally about the whole idea of glands. The magic of glands. The pancreatic connection to diabetes had just been deciphered.

RP: They discovered that the pancreas produced insulin.

PB: Exactly. This helped lend credibility to all of these OTHER nutball theories about what glands could do coming out of France and Russia. There was a guy name Voronoff who believed in implanting monkey glands – we’re talking about testicles, into men, and various arrangements of glands into females. It was alleged that this could make a person live 150 years. Voronoff devoted 25 years of his career trying to prove this. Then there was this professor of a medicine at the University of Illinois who actually surgically implanted in himself an extra human testicle because he believed that it would prolong his life and power him along. (laughs). These were true believers. Brinkley’s sliver of genius was to take these other sincere gropings of researchers and turn them into his fantastic quackery of transplanting goat testicles into impotent men. It started when a farmer wandered into his tiny clinic in Kansas around 1917. The man complained that he couldn’t get it going anymore. Supposedly he looked out the window at the livestock and said: “Too bad I don’t have billygoat nuts.” And the light bulb went off. It’s unclear who paid who for the original experiment, but one way or another the farmer laid down as Brinkley brought goat testicles, and stuck some in the guy’s scrotum. A couple of weeks later the guy came back with a smile. A year later the farmer and his wife had a baby whom they named “Billy”. The publicity rolled out of Kansas. Of course, so much of what makes a man “potent” or not lives in the mind. So as long as the patient didn’t get infected there was a chance that he had been helped by simply BELIEVING that something has been done to help him, and that he’d get better.

RP: Doctors today have access to testosterone, yet it has a minor role to play in treating impotence (or erectile dysfunction as it is called today). Brinkley was sticking goat testicle in a human where it is just going to get reabsorbed. Such a technique cannot work too well, yet Brinkley was a sensation.

PB: He was – owing more to the fact that he was a master psychologist and propagandist. Before long he had people streaming into town leading goats behind them, and banging on his door. Soon he had his own herd out back. Incidentally, he’d let a man go out and choose the goat he felt most simpatico with. It sounds nutty – and was – but John Brinkley was so good at the personal touch, he convinced patients it would work. The radio station that he set up in 1923 helped too. Early on he saw the potential in radio advertising. That’s how he kept pumping the word out, and bringing in customers.

RP: This at time when doctors did not advertise. And radio itself did not go for commercials.

PB: Brinkley was the first person to realize that the future of radio laid in advertising. In 1923 it was a brand new medium. People were still dazzled that it worked at all. Brinkley saw the future and set up a 50,000 watt station. He also saw that the future of radio was with sales. While corporate America looked down at radio, Brinkley was bringing in customers by the thousands. It took the crash of 1929 for corporate interests to say: “This guy is onto something…”

RP: He was working in Kansas operating on the farmers. But he almost became a California quack.

PB: Harry Chandler, owner-publisher of the LA Times was a fan. He invited Brinkley out to Los Angles in the 20s to put goat testicles into some of his staff as well as some judges and Hollywood people. Brinkley came out and got marvelous publicity from the LA Times. He decided to set up shop in LA. Why not? It was a hotbed of quackery anyway – and now he had an ocean view.

But then there was the Journal of the American Medical Association. JAMA then was small and almost powerless trade publication. Dr. Morris Fishbein, editor of JAMA decided to take on Brinkley. The great motivator of Fishbein’s career was nailing quacks, and while there were thousands, Brinkley became his Moby Dick. He realized that Brinkley was the worst of the worst and set out to bring him down. Fishbein’s initial strike was to dig up records of the jail time Brinkley had done. He kind of queered the deal for him in California.

PB: And after he was sent home and denied a California license they realized there was so MUCH fraud involving him that agents from Sacramento went to Kansas to arrest him. The governor said, “Get Lost.”

PB: The governor said more-or-less: “We’ve been making a fortune off of Brinkley and we intend to continue making a fortune. So go away.”

RP: Dr. Fishbein continued to put Brinkley in the crosshairs in JAMA. He convinced doctors that there was nothing to the goat gland stuff, yet was losing the PR battle. In 1930 [Brinkley’s] station KFKB was the number one station in the US. Brinkley also had a pharmaceutical company that was minting money.

PB: I’d like to insert that part of the reason his radio show and radio station were so popular was NOT because he got on the air to talk about goat testicles 24 hours a day. He was an old medicine show guy and understood that part of the way he needed to sell involved bringing on music acts, language teachers, Hawaiian bands, crop reports etc. He sought to be first entertaining, then indispensible.

In the 1920’s he moved away from goat testicles into something called “Medical Question Box”. That really got the medical establishment’s attention. The goat gland trade didn’t really bother them, but when Brinkley came up with the Question Box people would write and tell him their symptoms. He’d read the letter and diagnose them.

RP: And we might add…. and not very well….

PB: No, but he began sucking patients out of waiting rooms all over the Central United States. Now Brinkley was hitting the medical establishment where they lived. So it was kind of a combination of, we have to save these patients – and our practices while we are at it – that mobilized forces against him.

RP: We should note that when people wrote in Brinkley would recommend cures from stuff he sold.

PB: He had several dozen pharmacists economically tied to him selling unlabeled medicines that were marked by a number. There were no ingredients listed – to heighten their mysterious quality. One thing a quack always does is say that “No one else has my secret cure.” He had dozens of concoctions on shelves and was making 600% profit on every one. Fishbein and others got his Kansas medical license yanked in 1930. He lost his radio license at virtually the same time. It looked as though Brinkley was finished. Fishbein walked off kind of dusting his hands thinking that was the end of him. He was wrong.

RP: After twin calamities a lesser man might have crumbled – instead,  Brinkley decides to run for governor!

PB: Five days after he lost his radio license he announces he’s running for governor. He was coming in late so he had to be a write-in. But he was popular. As he goes around he draws crowds bigger than any politician has ever drawn. Bigger than FDR. Bigger than anybody that has ever gone thru Kansas. Part of it because people thought of him as a friend. He’s been murmuring to them over the radio for years. In the Depression he looked to people like a victim of the authorities. Because he was this great healer, a theme of Jesus Christ was played on. He’d stand on stage in front of a sea of people, throw his arms wide and say “I know how Jesus felt.” The crowds would roar. It was spectacular.

RP: As you explain the Democrats and Republicans then look around and realize, “My god, this guy is doing things no one has thought of.” Flying around in planes etc. The two parties in Kansas decide to collaborate. They conspire to deny him the election in a rare bit of bipartisan cooperation. (laughs)

PB: Not the fist election ever stolen, but interesting in that it DID involve a conspiracy of the Republicans and Democrats. “Anybody but Brinkley” they said to themselves, and just days before the election they changed the rules. Brinkley was as a write-in so the election committee came out and said the Kansas Supreme Court standard of the “intent of a voter” would not apply. Voters would instead have to spell Brinkley’s name and had to write “Dr. J. R. Brinkley” exactly. They’d better not forget the E in Brinkley either. Write-in ballots had to be exactly right for a vote to count. As a result, thousands of his partisans had their votes tossed out. Yes, he essentially had the election stolen from him. I believe that it may be poetic justice, however.

RP: Denied the Kansas governorship by a few thousand votes he soon got another brainwave. I can’t broadcast here in the US? I’ll head south to sunny Mexico.

PB: How about this guy? By now he’s murdered dozens as documented at his 1930 hearing. Surely 40+ people had died under the knife with him and God knows how many more from his “Medical Question Box” treatments. He was a threat of major proportions; a real psychopath. But Brinkley’s got this American inventiveness. He thinks: I lost my radio license, OK, what can I do. He decides to just go over the Rio Grande. He reasons: I can put up the biggest radio station in the world and the United States can’t touch me. And that is exactly what he did. Brinkley went to Mexico City with suitcases full of money and talked to the Mexicans about radio. Some there held grudges against the US. So they said go ahead. In the ‘30s he built what later became known as a “border blaster”. In a couple of years it was cranking out a million watts making it (far-and-away) the most powerful radio transmitter in the world! Now the gospel of John Brinkley was being heard all over the Western hemisphere

RP: I must say; 50,000 watt KGO is about the biggest station here on the west coast. I’ve heard KGO in Costa Rica and Hawaii. I have a hard time imagining what a million watts was like.

PB: Well… there were reports coming back that the Finns were listening to him (chuckles)

PB: Brinkley’s Mexican stations were picked up in the Java Sea. The signal skipped into Russia. Of course a signal that powerful was wreaking havoc on American stations. Some of the stations in Atlanta and such were wringing their hands as he obliterated their programming. People in Chicago would try to tune in to the Amos ‘n Andy program only to find Brinkley talking about prostate treatments. He became SO successful that all kinds of other quacks and crazies began streaming to Mexico to set-up radio stations of their own. This is what generated what became known as the “border blasters”. There were about a dozen by the late 30’s stretched across the border. They were pumping all sorts of crazy advertising and rants back into the US along with music that ultimately began Brinkley’s greatest legacy. John Brinkley wanted to sell stuff – and he did. By bringing in country music acts and giving them national exposure, Brinkley and those who came after him were responsible for giving country music its first platform. Brinkley hired the Carter family – at that point big stars only in the south and west. The Carters worked there for 4 years. Brinkley was the one helped make them the first family of country music. And wound up having a big affect on pop culture.

RP: You note that Brinkley was the guy who invented preprogrammed commercials.

PB: He did. He came up with the idea for the pre- recorded disc. Originally his idea was to record his music acts so he could pretend to be broadcasting them live. Then it dawned on him: think of all the advertising you can slam one after another!

RP: It’s the 1930s. Brinkley is making millions of dollars vs. the average GP’s $3,000 annually. He’s cruising the world on his own first-class yachts. Meanwhile Dr. Fishbein has continued to track him. Finally there came a showdown in Texas.

PB: Fishbein has been in pursuit of Brinkley, but it wasn’t until the late 30’s that he caught him. In part this is because there were no criminal laws covering what Brinkley was doing. No matter how many he killed or maimed he couldn’t be touched! Fishbein realized that there might be a way to get him into civil court. He taunted him, hoping Brinkley would sue for libel. He did – a great mistake. They met in a court room in Del Rio Texas in 1939. It was the climax to Brinkley’s career, because finally on the witness stand all the things he has been doing over the years were picked apart. They had other doctors testify. That is what finally put him away.

RP: Surprisingly, given his PR savvy, John Brinkley turned out to be his own worst enemy.

PB: Well, if you stood on a stage and said you know how Jesus felt, and 50,000 people agreed, it might go to your head. Brinkley’s ego grew so great that apparently he thought he was untouchable. He thought he could just sit on the stand and do a radio broadcast. He smugly got up and testified day after day before he realized that it wasn’t going as he’d hoped. He was finally seen as a quack.

RP: I’ve thought about Brinkley when watching late-night TV ads for “male enhancement”. There is no such thing, but the great ally of the quack (and legitimate physician alike) is the placebo effect.

PB: If ever there was an area where the placebo effect runs rampant it is in the “male potency” area.

RP: What about Brinkley’s story do you find most remarkable?

PB: Probably his affect on pop culture and country music. Twenty years after Brinkley’s death, Wolfman Jack was at that radio station. It was still there and the Wolfman was sitting in a chair broadcasting. Coming out of Mexico were blues, rock, Little Richard. All this stuff parents didn’t want you to hear. This was what Brinkley spawned. I don’t want to inflate him, suggest he created the modern world, but he DID ultimately have an enormous effect on how teens grew up.

RP: I guess he personified the phrase “every cloud does have a silver lining.”

PB: Well, you do have Little Richard on the one hand – goat testicles on the other. (laughs)

RP: It is quite a tale – a medical fraud who beat Alf Landon for governor in 1932 and who leads to Wolfman Jack in the 60s. There are not too many people you can say something like that about.

PB: Exactly right!

Just as Dr. Morris Fishbein did in the 1920’s, Dr. Doug and Sacramentomenshealth.com will maintain a constant vigilance for quackery in its many forms, and be sure that the facts are revealed and the appropriate amount of mockery ensues. Until that time remember, if a licensed surgeon’s scientific method jumps from observing copulating goats to concluding that goat testicles increase fertility, you might have just found yourself a quack.