A 19th-century diploma mill doctor, Brinkley’s extraordinary career was a monument to full-scale quackery. The original article I wrote can be found here.
Born in 1885 into a poverty-stricken North Carolina family, John R. Brinkley was nonetheless able to use his wiles, audacity, and alarming lack of scruples to become fantastically rich. He largely achieved this by selling useless patent medicines, at first through his clinics and later through constant hawking on his pioneering radio station. The greatest bulk of his wealth, though, derived from a simple operation he performed on both men and women, claiming the procedure would boost sex drive and fertility.
Brinkley’s Early Scams
John Brinkley had wanted to be a doctor from a young age, but for a while at least his hopes would be stymied. Leaving school at sixteen, he took a job as a mail carrier, then moved to New York to work as a telegrapher for Western Union. In 1906 he returned to North Carolina, where he married Sally Wike. The pair of them posed as Quaker doctors and sold patent remedies at their traveling medicine show. They then moved to Knoxville, where Brinkley assisted in a similar scam with a man known as Dr. Burke.
A year later, Brinkley and his wife had moved to Chicago, where he enrolled in medical school, albeit an unaccredited one called Bennett Medical College. Brinkley attended classes and worked as a telegrapher, but the tuition fees and the costs of raising a family were sending him into debt. He completed three years of study, but there was tremendous upheaval in his personal life; his wife left him several times, and though the pair reconciled and moved back to North Carolina, leaving his tuition unpaid, she and their two children finally left him for good after he had bought a medical certificate from a diploma mill in St. Louis. He then ended up in Greenville, South Carolina.
In Greenville, Brinkley and another man set up shop, billing themselves as “Electro Medic Doctors” and injecting men with a $25 “fertility drug” that was actually colored water. The scam lasted two months, after which the two men fled town, leaving a trail of unpaid bills. Brinkley next turned up in Memphis, where he married Minnie Jones, even though he was still legally married to his first wife; then he made his way to Knoxville, where he was almost immediately apprehended and extradited back to Greenville on charges of writing bad checks and practicing medicine without a license. He and his partner Crawford were jailed, but settled out of court; Brinkley then moved on to Arkansas. After taking over another medical clinic there, Brinkley was able to earn enough money to finally pay off his debt to Bennett Medical College, and in 1914 he and his new wife moved to Kansas City where he finished his unaccredited medical degree at Eclectic Medical University; the diploma allowed him to legally practice medicine in eight states.
Goat Glands for Virility
An Army Reservist, Brinkley served briefly in World War I, but after being discharged due to illness he moved to Milford, Kansas, where he set up the clinic that would finally make him a wealthy and famous man. The clinic had 16 rooms, and though at first he made a respectable living treating victims of the 1918 flu epidemic, he soon turned to a more lucrative enterprise: Restoring virility.
Brinkley, noticing the randy exploits of the average billy goat, reasoned that by implanting goat testicles into the scrotal sac of a human male, some of the goat’s prodigious sexual appetite might be transferred to the man. He performed the procedure on dozens of men (and some women too, transplanting the testicles into their abdomens near their ovaries) at $750 a pop ($8,000 in today’s dollars). Every now and then the operation seemed to work, but more often than not, the patients saw no change or became ill, and an undetermined number died shortly after leaving the clinic; Brinkley was sued many times in the eleven years following 1930. Undaunted, Brinkley began prescribing his goat gland treatment for all sorts of different ailments, soliciting new customers through a massive advertising campaign. He even turned up uninvited at a transplant seminar in Chicago and demonstrated his procedure on 34 men, and later transplanted goat glands into a few film stars on a trip to Los Angeles. His public profile was growing, but all the attention and adulation bestowed on him by his loyal patients attracted the attention of the AMA, who began looking into his past and trying to discredit him.
Brinkley’s Radio Stations
During his stint in Los Angeles, Brinkley had toured a radio station, and immediately saw its advertising potential. By 1923 he had earned enough money to start his own station, KFKB, in Milford, which was possibly the first radio station in the state of Kansas. Brinkley used the station to promote his goat glands treatment and a line of patent medicines, but he also broadcast bluegrass and country music, astrological predictions, language lessons, and various other ephemera. His later segment, called “Medical Question Box,” was a huge success, earning him the unbelievable sum over $14,000 a week (over nine million dollars in today’s money) in revenue from medicine sales. But even as his star was rising, forces were gathering against him; several newspapers wrote articles describing his various scams, and agents from California even came to arrest him, though the governor of Kansas refused to extradite him. Thinking better credentials might get his attackers off his back, Brinkley traveled to Europe on a hunt for honorary degrees. The University of Pavia in Italy agreed to grant him one, but it was later rescinded by Benito Mussolini himself.
More heartache followed, as a competing radio station entrepreneur ran a series of unflattering stories on Brinkley, and the Federal Radio Commission refused to renew his radio license. Again undaunted, Brinkley responded by running for office several times (and losing), then finally packing up and moving just across the Mexican border, where he broadcast from a new 50,000-watt station he built, XER. From there he thought he could continue to hawk his medicines and bogus treatments safely out of the grasp of the Feds. But the U.S. government fought back, persuading Mexico to revoke his broadcast license and even later passing a law to crack down on these so-called “border blaster” radio stations that operated without a U.S. license; they called it the Brinkley Act.
The Downfall of John R. Brinkley
His radio station out of business, his credibility in tatters, Brinkley spent the last few years of his life in bankrupt misery. He lost several lawsuits for libel and malpractice, he was investigated by the IRS, and then indicted by the USPS for mail fraud. He suffered three heart attacks, and eventually had to have one of his legs amputated. When he died in 1942 he didn’t have a penny to his name. The only lasting monuments to his legacy are the laws passed to thwart his fraudulent activities, and the mansion he once owned in Del Rio, Texas, which still stands to this day.
Brock, Pope (2008). Charlatan: America’s Most Dangerous Huckster, the Man Who Pursued Him, and the Age of Flimflam. Crown. ISBN: 0307339882.