Sunday, 21 August 2011

John Romulus Brinkley: The Goat Gland Doctor

Born in Jackson County, North Carolina in 1885 J.R. Brinkley would become famous for his innovative approaches in promoting his medical practice and infamous for some of the practices themselves...
Wishing to become a doctor Brinkley began his career hawking quack remedies in a travelling medicine show with his wife under the guise of Quaker doctors.
Brinkley soon tired of life on the road and enrolled himself into Bennett Medical College, an unaccredited institution in Chicago that specialised in 'eclectic medicine', a branch of herbalism based around traditional Native American methods.
Unable to keep up with his tuition bills Brinkley left the college without graduating and moved around various towns in Florida and North Carolina operating as a 'Doctor' without any formal medical training.
Eventually Brinkley bought a diploma from the Kansas City Eclectic Medical University and opened up a clinic in Greenville, South Carolina.
He specialised in the dispensation of 'Salvarsan' an 'electric medicine from Germany' that it was claimed could reinvigorate the human body.
In reality it was coloured water that Brinkley would inject into his patients at $25 per shot.
By 1918 Brinkley was operating a 16 room clinic in Milford, Kansas and developed a reputation as a capable doctor and gifted physician after his care and treatment of a huge number of patients during that years influenza pandemic. He also became known as a fair and generous employer and the presence of his clinic proved to be very positive influence on the prosperity and wellbeing of the town.
However it wasn't too long before Brinkley began to push at the margins again.
Visited by a patient who was suffering from erectile dysfunction and complained that he used to be 'frisky as a goat' Brinkley replied with a smile that the problem was that he didn't have the glands of a goat to keep his vigour up.
The patients response would define Brinkley's life and career from this point on:

'Well why don't you put some in then Doc?'

The transplantation of animal gland into humans wasn't unprecedented and Brinkley had actually studied the are somewhat in his time at Bennett College and was intrigued by the idea.
The procedure took place and the patient, having survived Brinkley's untrained surgical skills, went on to impregnate his wife within weeks.
The child was a boy.
They named him Billy...
Word of the success of the operation spread and soon Brinkley was inundated with requests for goat gland transplants. The medical validity of the procedure was unproven and the questionable skill of the surgeon, coupled with his habit of operating while drunk and less than sterile surroundings made the whole affair quite perilous. However most of the patients survived and the glands would be harmlessly absorbed into the body as foreign matter.
People were willing to take the risks for the promised rewards of the curing of impotence, insanity, hardened arteries, prostate problems, high blood pressure, skin disease, old age, and turning grey hair dark again.
Even women would apply for the procedure for the therapeutic relief offered.
Ever the showman Brinkley made a point of only using the glands from the highly prized Angora goat rather than the more common Toggenberg breed and would allow the patient to choose which goat their glands came from...
Hungry to build on his success Brinkley looked to expand the scope of his operations by promoting himself on the exciting new medium of radio.
He founded a station KFKB ('Kansas First, Kansas Best) and began to broadcast a mixture of military bands, French lessons, astrological forecasts and storytelling alongside huge promotional features on his medical procedures.
Armed with a 1,000 watt transmitter Brinkley managed to bring in a huge number of new patients and became incredibly wealthy.
He invested in Milford and built a new sewage system and sidewalks, installed electricity, built a bandstand and apartments for his patients and employees.
He also founded a baseball team, The Brinkley Goats and built a new post office to handle all of his mail, which was approaching up to 20,000 letters per day.
As a reward for his investment in the state Brinkley was made an Admiral in the Kansas Navy.
Kansas is landlocked and the state contains the exact geographical centre point of the United States of America...
Investigated constantly by the American Medical Association Brinkley moved the operations of his radio station to Mexico which was a little looser in its regulations.
He began to promote his medical practice with impunity and armed with a new 50,000 watt transmitter was heard across America and further around the world.
This new transmitter would power up lightbulbs, kill birds and drown out other signals.
People claimed that they could pick up the signal in tooth fillings or from bedsprings.
Another reason for the relocation to Mexico was Brinkley's support for Nazism in the 1930's.
As well as broadcasts in support of Hitler the Brinkley Mansion also boasted a swimming pool with swastikas tiled on the bottom...
Having made a success of his medical career and life as a broadcaster it was perhaps natural that Brinkley would attempt to move into politics.
He stood for the position of Governor of Kansas twice, using the might of his radio empire on both occasions. Standing as an Independent and having applied after the ballots were printed Brinkley began a huge campaign based around his name being written onto the ballot and voted for.
While never gaining enough votes to be elected in Kansas there were reports of confused voters, at the prey of Brinkley's powerful transmitter and garbled campaign, writing his name on ballot papers across the country...
Fittingly, Brinkley's own arrogance caused his downfall.
Morris Fishbein, an employee of the American Medical Association made it his life's work to bring down Brinkley's empire. His series of articles in various medical journals angered Brinkley so much that eventually he sued Fishbein for libel.
This was a huge mistake.
Under cross-examination Brinkley's lack of qualifications and medical expertise was exposed.
He was stripped of his various licences to practice medicine and left himself open to malpractice suits from nearly everyone he had operated upon.
On May 26th 1942 Brinkley died penniless in San Antonio, Texas.
His legacy lives on though.
Every time someone pays for an injection of bovine collagen into their body they are unknowingly paying tribute to a man who knew the lengths people would go to for their health and wellbeing....

1 comment:

  1. Good one Masal! I knew you'd do this one. Love your work. I found this great comic about him, with lots of detail about the role his second wife played. Amazing.