Tuesday, October 28, 2014

"Charlatan: America's Most Dangerous Huckster, the Man Who Pursued Him, and the Age of Flimflam," by Pope Brock

Pope Brock's book, "Charlatan," documents the life and career of of "Dr." John R. Brinkley, one of America's most successful quacks.

I read this book some time ago, but was reminded of it recently by a segment on the Travel Channel's "Mysteries at the Museum" -- a favorite show of mine that I would recommend to anyone with a tendency towards ADD and an interest in odd stories from history. You can watch the segment on "Goat Testicle Transplant," online. Yes, you read that correctly, Brinkley's panacea for everything from "loss of male vigor" to cancer was transplanting the testicles from young male goats into humans. Women received transplanted goat ovaries. Actually, "transplant" is too dignified a term for what he was in reality doing: maiming people and stuffing goat organs into the wounds without much regard for sterile technique.

As synchronicity would have it, I ran across a blog post on "The Quack Doctor" in which director Penny Lane discusses her new film project, "Nuts! The Brinkley Story." Lane says:
NUTS! tells Brinkley’s story with animated reenactments, never-before-seen archival footage, hundreds of photographs, clippings, ads, etc., and interviews with some pretty funny historians. I think it’s a suitably colorful and eclectic way to bring this wacky story to life. I have completed a complete edit of the film and I’m raising funds now to finish it (primarily to complete the animations, which are gorgeous, time consuming and a bit expensive).
I checked out the film maker's Kickstarter page, and am very happy to report that her goals have been met and then some! Looks like a fun and thought-provoking film, and I look forward to seeing it. Here's the trailer:

But back to the book, which is a fascinating story of a successful huckster who became fabulously wealthy and was nearly elected Governor of Kansas. Perhaps even more interesting is what the story illustrates about human nature and the American psyche.

At the start of his surgical practice in 1917, John Brinkley was already an accomplished seller of useless patent medicines and fraudulent therapies. At the time, the science of endocrinology was in its infancy and just beginning to isolate and understand the activities of hormones such as testosterone.

Little bits of genuine information were quickly spun into pseudo-scientific theories promising restored youth. Some versions used injections of gonadal extracts, others implants of partial or intact organs from monkeys or even humans (recently-executed felons). Brinkley sold his version with a skillful charm offensive that made him a sure success.

Medical licensing was sketchy at best: never having graduated medical school didn't stop Brinkley from from obtaining licenses to practice in several states. Only the American Medical Association (AMA) showed much consistent interest in putting charlatans out of business, and dogged investigator Morris Fishbein pursued Brinkley for years. Despite the evidence (infection, tetanus, gangrene...), Brinkley's fans stuck by him -- it's hard to know if some patients were "helped" thanks to the placebo effect, or were just unwilling to admit they'd been taken.

Among Brinkley's true gifts a mastery of public relations was king. He hired a team of promoters to extoll his (fabricated and extravagant) successes in planted newspaper articles. For example, the Gettysburg Star and Sentinel printed that the Japanese government was requiring goat gland implants for all aged charity patients -- to restore them to working vigor, and get them off assistance. Further claims included that the children of goat gland recipients were showing signs of becoming "a superior type of human being..."

Brinkley moved on to run his own radio station, which popularized country music and blues as well as advertising his services. He made a promotional film shown in theaters around the country, and when he ran for governor of Kansas he was the first candidate to travel by airplane to campaign events.

Not until 1940 did the goat gland empire fully disintegrate into bankruptcy and prosecution. His death in 1942 kept him out of jail. Tributes to his intelligence and charm, if not his honesty or medical skill, came in even from some of his victims and bitterest enemies.

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