The Goat Doctor
Posted: 06 Sep 2014
Dr. John R. Brinkley is possibly the most interesting man you have never heard of. This guy is so fascinating it just blows my mind that nobody has turned his life story into a movie. I realize that I'm a little wordy on this one but the story is just too good!
John Romulus Brinkley was born July 8th, 1885 in the hill country of North Carolina. His father had been a Confederate Army medic and earned his living as a medicine man. His mother/cousin, Sarah Burnett, was his Father's 4th wife's niece who had come to stay with the family for a short while. It is also worth mentioning that his father (the medicine man) had thrice been a widower to continually younger women who would die of mysterious illnesses.
As Brinkley reached adulthood he decided he would follow in his father's footsteps and become a physician. After failing out of or being expelled for failure to pay tuition from a number of colleges he decided to forgo the degree and took to the road posing as a Quaker doctor. He would stop in rural towns and in an elaborate "medicine show" cure a couple of lucky passers through (not locals) and then sell several bottles of his patented medicine before skipping town.
During this same time Brinkley wed a childhood classmate Sally Wilke, John and Sally worked the medicine show together for a while before settling in Chicago where he again started med school and went to work at the telegraph office. The Brinkley’s had a child and when things became rocky the couple split. John kidnapped his daughter and fled to Canada offering his wife the ultimatum of reconciling or never seeing her daughter again. The couple got back together and moved around the Midwest and south where John would pose as a "undergraduate physician" for a time until being discredited and relocating.
Finally in 1912 John got his degree. A shady diploma mill called Kansas City Eclectic Medical University agreed to give Brinkley a Doctorate based on the credits he had earned (and a fee). With his new degree Brinkley opened a clinic in Greenville, SC with another "doctor" named Crawford. Brinkley and Crawford advertised a cure for manly vigor. They injected colored water for $25 a pop that was said to cure impotence and then after only 2 months they skipped town having never paid a penny to rent, utilities, or their other creditors.
Brinkley and Crawford next landed in Memphis where Brinkley met Young Minnie Jones, a friend of Crawford's, and after a four-day courtship Minnie and John were married even though John was still married to Sally Brinkley. While on their honeymoon Brinkley was arrested in Knoxville and extradited to Greenville where he was put in jail for practicing medicine without a license and for writing bad checks. Brinkley told the sheriff that it was all Crawford's fault, and gave investigators enough information that they were able to nab Crawford. The two former partners met again in jail.
After his run-in with the law and being bailed out by his new father-in-law Brinkley was also able to get his college debts paid off and spent a year attending college seemingly now on the straight and narrow, he graduated in 1915 from the same Kansas City school that had given him a fake degree. He then went to work as the plant doctor for Swift & Co. Lard where he became fascinated with the physiology of the animals they would slaughter, especially the goats which he felt to be the most virile of all the animals.
During WWI Brinkley was drafted as a medic but was unable to serve being "sick with a nervous breakdown" and was discharged after only 2 months. Now jobless, Brinkley moved to Milford, KS after seeing an advertisement stating the town needed a doctor. This is where the story REALLY gets interesting. In Milford Brinkley performed his first operation to restore male virility and fertility by implanting the testicular glands of goats into the scrotum of a male patient. The patient reported it a success (I mean, who wouldn't) and the media took the story and ran with it. Brinkley's office was soon filled by men of a certain age, and when the first patient's wife gave birth to a baby boy (about 7 months after the operation) Dr. Brinkley became a national success overnight performing his operation on movie stars and politicians. His marketing department advertised his abilities to turn men into "the ram that am with every lamb" while Brinkley performed his (mostly) harmless operation on so many men a day that he started to get sloppy. He would use unsanitized instruments, frequently while drunk, in less-than-sterile places (occasionally the waiting room on busy days). It goes without saying something was bound to go wrong and it did on more than one occasion. Brinkley would be sued more than a dozen times for wrongful death between 1930 and 1941.
All of these operations made Brinkley a rich man. To further his goat gland message and to satisfy his need to entertain Brinkley built a radio station in Kansas. The radio station played a mix of popular country music and Brinkley's voice for hours at a time. In addition to advertising the goat operation Brinkley had a show on his radio station called The Medical Question Box where he would read listener mail asking about medical problems and he would then prescribe medicines available only at members of the "Brinkley Pharmaceutical Association" Most of these medicines were over priced homeopathic treatments or placebos but Brinkley was paid a cut for all of the sales and got even richer.
In 1930 the American Medical Association revoked Brinkley's license after a spy had witnessed the doctor's operations first hand. In true Brinkley fashion he launched a write-in campaign for Kansas Governor using his radio station. He planned to reinstate his one medical license once elected. His campaign rallies featured music stars from his radio station, German and Swedish speaking staffers to appeal to the large number of immigrants in rural Kansas, and the charisma of good ol' doc Brinkley. Brinkley won the election with roughly 40% percent of the votes but before announcing the winner to the public, the Kansas Attorney General (who had put the final stamp of approval on revoking his medical license) announced that only votes placed for J. R. Brinkley and not those for Doc, Doctor, or John Brinkley would be counted meaning that instead of Doc Brinkley, Harry Hines Woodring was to be the next governor of Kansas. Shortly after the FCC revoked Brinkley's broadcaster's license in an effort to shut down his still lucrative medical practice (he hired licensed doctors to perform the procedure) and pharmaceutical sales. Undeterred, he just moved his transmitter to Mexico.
At this time (early 30s) Mexico was pretty irritated with the U.S. Government for a number of things including not leaving any AM bandwidth for Mexican stations to operate in. As a result, they issued Doc Brinkley a license to build a 50,000 kilowatt radio station that even located in Ciudad Acuña, Mexico could still be heard throughout Kansas and most of the midwest. Not satisfied with that, Brinkley convinced the Mexican government to let him increase that to first 125,000 kilowatts and later 1 million kilowatts. It is said Brinkley's radio station could be heard all the way to Canada on clear nights and closer to home in Texas it could be heard even without a radio. There are reports of hearing Brinkley's station on barbed wire fences, bed springs, and even dental fillings. Broadcaster shifts at the station had to be shortened due to frequent nosebleeds and headaches. Brinkley's new station followed much of the same format that his old station had showcasing up and coming roots and country music stars and selling Brinkley's potions (now by mail). He even opened another hospital in the nearby small town of Del Rio, TX where the locals were happy to have the inflow of money and could care less what the AMA and federal government said about the good doctor.
In 1938 Morris Fishbein of the AMA published a two-part series called "Modern Medical Charlatans" that included an expose of Brinkley's checkered career and education. Brinkley sued Fishbein for libel and $250,000 in damages (about $5 Million today). A Texas jury found for Fishbein, stating that Brinkley "should be considered a charlatan and a quack in the ordinary, well-understood meaning of those words". The jury verdict unleashed a barrage of lawsuits against Brinkley, by some estimates well over $3 million in total value. Also around this time, the IRS came knocking on Brinkley's door. It seems the good doctor had never paid taxes. He declared bankruptcy in 1941, the same year the U.S. and Mexico reached an agreement on allocating radio bandwidth which included a clause that shut down Brinkley's station.
Brinkley died penniless and alone in his home in Del Rio, TX on May 26th, 1942. At the time of his death he was under investigation by the FBI for mail fraud.