Cover image for The bizarre careers of John R. Brinkley
The bizarre careers of John R. Brinkley
Lee, R. Alton.
Personal Author:
Publication Information:
Lexington : University Press of Kentucky, [2002]

Physical Description:
xvii, 283 pages : illustrations ; 24 cm
Humble origins -- Toggenberg goats -- Radio advertising -- Beset by enemies -- Brinkleyism -- Hands across the border -- The old cocklebur -- Decline and fall -- Postscript -- Conclusions.
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R730 .L39 2002 Adult Non-Fiction Central Closed Stacks

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Tells the story of the infamous "Goat Gland Doctor" -- controversial medical charlatan, groundbreaking radio impresario, and prescient political campaigner -- and recounts his amazing rags to riches to rags career. A popular joke of the 1920s posed the question, "What's the fastest thing on four legs?" The punch line? "A goat passing Dr. Brinkley's hospital!"

It seems that John R. Brinkley's virility rejuvenation cure -- transplanting goat gonads into aging men -- had taken the nation by storm. Never mind that "Doc" Brinkley's medical credentials were shaky at best and that he prescribed medication over the airwaves via his high-power radio stations. The man built an empire. The Kansas Medical Board combined with the Federal Radio Commission to revoke Brinkley's medical and radio licenses, which various courts upheld. Not to be stopped, Brinkley started a write-in campaign for Governor. He received more votes than any other candidate but lost due to invalidated and "misplaced" ballots.

Brinkley's tactics, particularly the use of his radio station and personal airplane, changed political campaigning forever. Brinkley then moved his radio medical practice to Del Rio, Texas, and began operating a "border blaster" on the Mexico side of the Rio Grande. His rogue stations, XER and its successor XERA, eventually broadcast at an antenna-shattering 1,000,000 watts and were not only a haven for Brinkley's lucrative quackery, but also hosted an unprecedented number of then-unknown country musicians and other guests.

Author Notes

R. Alton Lee , the author of several books including Eisenhower and Landrum-Griffin: A Study in Labor-Management Politics , taught history at the University of South Dakota for thirty years.

Reviews 3

Booklist Review

One Clement Wood published the official biography of so-called goat-gland doctor Brinkley in 1937. Drawing heavily on archival material that became available 40 years later, Lee offers a documented, unbiased, and thorough second account that suggests that Brinkley wasn't really a charlatan and quack (his medical education was somewhat better than average for his time) but was a first-rate con man. Born and raised in Appalachian North Carolina, Brinkley learned telegraphy and made it his passport out of North Carolina to obtain a medical education. In 1913 he married Minnie Jones, who, besides making Brinkley a bigamist, contributed substantially to his surgical, business, and political careers. Lee describes Brinkley's goat-gland transplant work, his various hospitals, his radio stations, his campaigns for governorship of Kansas, and his support of the American fascist movement in a lively manner, and is to be commended for his attention to Brinkley's battles with the American Medical Association, especially with AMA officer and historian Morris Fishbein. A high-quality biography of a once famous, then notorious, but now little-known figure. --William Beatty

Publisher's Weekly Review

Perhaps the most famous quack in American medical history, John Brinkley (1885-1942) is a quirky biographer's dream. In the 1920s, he claimed he could cure impotence by transplanting goat glands into aging men; he quickly attracted the enmity of the American Medical Association, which would become his lifelong nemesis. Brinkley built a hospital and a radio station in Milford, Kans., and, through a cunning understanding of the symbiosis between radio advertising and his medical practice, made himself a millionaire. When the Federal Radio Commission (an FCC precursor) caught on, it revoked Brinkley's radio license for prescribing medication over the airwaves. At the behest of the AMA, Kansas regulators revoked his medical license, too. Brinkley responded by running for the Kansas governorship in 1930, campaigning against political corruption and excessive regulation. He lost, but just barely. A year later, Brinkley built a "borderblasting" radio station in Mexico, where he broadcast live performances by Gene Autry, Roy Rogers and Hank Williams and plenty of self-serving commentary before being shut down by the Mexican government. Still, Brinkley prospered: he moved to Texas, organized a new hospital where he attracted thousands of patients a year for his "goat gland" operation, and bought a mansion, yachts and lots of diamond jewelry. Lee, a historian at the University of South Dakota, is a bit defensive about his subject: he endeavors mightily to depict Brinkley as an entrepreneur, media trailblazer and political heavyweight. And yet Brinkley remains essentially a con man, the P.T. Barnum of American medicine. While this is not for the general reader, those interested in American charlatanism will enjoy the tale of this "showman par excellence." 24 b&w illus. (Apr.) Forecast: Brinkley "remains well known in Kansas," writes Lee, so this may evoke strong regional interest. (c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved

Choice Review

Trite, but true: if Brinkley (1885-1942), the "Goat Gland Doctor," did not exist, he would have to be invented. In mid-career, Brinkley stumbled on a get-rich-quick scheme: he transplanted goat testes into impotent men. Business was brisk and Brinkley's entrepreneurial skills were superb. He started one of the nation's first radio stations and used it as an organ to advertise his medical services. That, plus astute newspaper testimonials, made Brinkley into a millionaire at a time when most physicians earned only a few thousand dollars a year. These activities earned him the animosity of the American Medical Association and its president, Morris Fishbein, who considered Brinkley the nation's most notorious quack. The AMA had his medical license revoked, but Brinkley turned this setback to his advantage by posing as a man of the people who had been hounded by eastern "trusts" and ran three times as an independent, populist candidate for governor of Kansas. His schemes, however, collapsed and Brinkley died bankrupt. Lee has written a sympathetic, balanced biography of a man who represented a not uncommon, but dying, breed of physician in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. General readers; lower-division undergraduates through faculty. T. P. Gariepy Stonehill College