The Downfall of Dr. John Brinkley

Minnie and John Brinkley, surgical partners.

 The conclusion of a two-part series


Grave of John R Brinkley at Forest Hill Cemetery in Memphis, Tenn.

Grave of John R Brinkley at Forest Hill Cemetery in Memphis, Tenn.

By Dr. Tom Cloer

For The Courier

Editor’s Note: This is the conclusion of a two-part series written by Courier contributor Dr. Tom Cloer, Jr., about Dr. John R. Brinkley, Jr., born in neighboring Jackson County, N.C., and one of the most famous and successful men in the world in the 1930s before his unconventional methods and deceit led to his own fall from grace. The first half of this series was published in the May 15 edition of the Courier.

 Brinkley Strikes Gold

Dr. John Brinkley enrolled in Eclectic Medical School in Kansas City, Mo., and after one additional year bought his M.D. in 1914. Here is ample evidence that this was indeed the golden age of hocus pocus. A sheepskin from this diploma mill would allow Brinkley to practice medicine in several states, Kansas being his choice. There was really no central regulating power for licensing medical doctors. Andrew Jackson was somewhat responsible for this. His idea was for “the common man” to have a chance. So, believe it or not, by the end of the 19th century only about three states had real licensing requirements. The American Medical Association had very little power, but that would change, primarily because of one man — John R. Brinkley.

In 1917, Brinkley set up shop in Milford, Kan. The next occurrence is documented by almost everyone who has studied this bizarre man. It would set the stage for the little orphan boy raised in the dirt-poor environment of the Appalachian Mountains, in the same cabin that my mom and all her siblings were born, to become the richest doctor on the globe.

A man came into his office claiming difficulty with his marital obligations. Brinkley, who had knowledge of goats’ eagerness to procreate jokingly said something like, “You need goat parts.”

A light came on in Brinkley’s head when the desperate man said, “Well! Give them to me, Doc. Transplant them in me!” This forever changed the trajectory of Brinkley’s practice, and would force The American Medical Association to begin to define what malpractice nightmares might resemble. This was 1917, the year my dad was born; it would be 1964 before a medical doctor ever spent time in jail for malpractice that killed a patient.

An appointment was given to the man. A goat was stripped of his dignity, and the operation was performed on the patient. In due time the man came back with a quick step and a gleam in his eye declaring that Brinkley was indeed “the man.” The patient’s wife later conceived, and it would have been unconscionable for the child not to be named “Billy.” And so he was.

The news spread quickly of the “successful” operation, where goat testicles were transplanted into a man’s scrotum. The Chancellor of the Chicago School of Law, Dean Tobias, asked Brinkley if he would operate on him. Soon, in 1920, Dean Tobias would be showing the press how high he could jump, and saw to it that Brinkley received an honorary doctorate from the University of Chicago Law School. This very prestigious publicity increased Brinkley’s need to neuter all available goats. In the beginning, he required his patients to furnish the goats. The men came marching in with goats that would soon sing much higher on the scale. But he later had goats shipped in 40 at a time.

Like Moses, the number 40 would become important to Brinkley, both in realizing the American dream, and in the ensuing nightmare.

This was all hocus pocus, of course, sheer nonsense. Then, how did this man end up performing more than 16,000 operations at $750 per operation in the 1920s and ‘30s, with men lining up to testify on Brinkley’s behalf, including the owner and the editor of the Los Angeles Times? It was because Brinkley was really one of the very first American capitalists to mold quackery and the placebo effect into the shape of a gold bullion. He was a marketing genius, and a natural psychologist that knew what makes a “manly man” is a manly mind. If the man believes himself to be manly, he is cured. As in The Wizard of Oz, the scarecrow thought he had no brain, the cowardly lion thought he had no courage, and the tin man thought he had no heart. They were all convinced that the wizard could grant them all that they needed. But the whole point of that brilliant allegory was that these characters already possessed the very things that they sought.

A placebo effect, now commonly recognized and avoided in any good research, was used exceedingly by Brinkley, and men convinced they were cured acted as if they were cured. Brinkley knew also that men had real trouble talking about this. Remember, this was the beginning of the 1920s. When asked why he didn’t perform more surgery on females, he said, “They want to talk too much!” Brinkley also said that the rejuvenation worked best for people of higher intelligence, and least best for the “stupid type.” Let’s see a show of hands for whom it didn’t work!

Brinkley Turns to

Radio for Advertising: A Change in the Industry

Brinkley was an all-American marketing wizard. He began working toward advertising to reach more candidates for surgery. This led indirectly to a lasting contribution in American culture. I refer to Brinkley as “The Ed Sullivan of Medicine.” In 1923, he bought radio station KKFB in Milford, Kan. The station gave Kansas farmers the weather forecast and market reports, but Brinkley started providing entertainment and advertisement. He catapulted scores of great entertainers to stardom, because, like Sullivan many years later on television, he recognized burgeoning talent, what people liked, and Brinkley really knew how to sell something. People who got their start with Brinkley were people such as Roy Rogers, Gene Autry, Eddie Arnold, Red Foley, Hank Williams, Tennessee Ernie Ford, and one of my favorites, Aunt Samantha Bumgarner. Aunt Samantha was from Jackson County, N.C., and was the first woman to “record” country music.

But a marketing genius pushed by the invisible hand of greed in the free enterprise system doesn’t miss a golden opportunity. With the entertainment, the Medical Question Box part of the show helped Brinkley attain the American dream. The questions were of a medical nature, and Brinkley would diagnose and prescribe medication to his write-in patients over the air. His was the first medical advice show in America. He was not only the Wizard of Oz, but also Dr. Oz with his confident advice. Brinkley prescribed “medicines” by number, not by the name of the medicine, since there were no names. To receive medications by number, all one needed to do was go to one of the nearest 500 participating pharmacies; count them, 500. Pharmacists too loved realizing the American dream; at least 500 did.

A question would be drawn and read over the radio, “Dr. Brinkley, I feel irritable and restless. I also feel a little nauseous. What would you think is causing this?” Dr Brinkley would reply, “This sounds like a common problem. You need to go the nearest pharmacy participating with this station and purchase Number X. You would need to stay on this medicine for X weeks, months or years.” Much of the “medicine” was colored water, a winner for Brinkley. The gland transplants were soon said to do more than just rejuvenate. They would also cure problems of the prostate, and even insanity.

To show that he was truly a quack, he used one constant that all good quackery relies on heavily; he used testimonials from his cured scarecrows and tin men. There was little or no science with Brinkley. That is partly because there were no laws against what Brinkley was doing. As long as infection didn’t set in right away, which sometimes happened, or if patients didn’t die on the table, which sometimes happened, $750 plopped into the bank.

Dr. John R. Brinkley’s wealth grew to be immense. People that I have interviewed who knew Brinkley personally referred to his flamboyant, luxurious display of wealth. I interviewed Jim Wike, another cousin of Brinkley’s first wife. Jim remembers Brinkley parking a huge Cadillac (from a fleet of such) in front of The Tuckasegee Baptist Church in East Laporte above Sylva in Jackson County. Jim and the other young boys would inspect and admire the elegant means of transportation in such a harsh economic time as The Great Depression. Brinkley’s Cadillacs had 18 cylinders, big B’s on each golden hubcap, and “Dr. John R. Brinkley” in gold several times on the car. Blanch Wike told me she remembered the great feasts Brinkley would provide the people of East Laporte when he returned to visit. Blanch Wike, now in her 90s, also told me as a child she was mesmerized by the enormous, sparkling diamonds on his fingers as he sat in the stark little Appalachian cabin with sun rays penetrating through a window. Another of my cousins, Frank Moody, now age 95, admired one of Brinkley’s cars so intensely that Frank decided to try to obtain it. It was a 1932 white Pontiac convertible with a crank-out windshield and a rumble seat. Frank was about to enter the U.S. military. Brinkley had Frank Moody pay a down payment, and then so much monthly from his military check. John Brinkley never missed a chance to have petty cash in arm’s reach.

But this ostentatious show of wealth was bound to bring resentment. When the average medical doctor was making $,3500 per year, Brinkley was making millions. And when people started to look at Brinkley in awe, Dr. John R. Brinkley began to feel awesome. Brinkley got carried away, and as we have seen in our latest recession, the invisible hand of greed in the free enterprise system often brings spanking. By the end of the 1920s, the Federal Radio Commission was responsible for Brinkley’s medical license being revoked in 1929, and the closing of his radio station in 1930. Diagnosing illnesses, then prescribing and selling “medicines” over the radio by number, seemed to be a stretch. The American Medical Association, whom Brinkley called “The Meat Cutters’ Association,” was investigating Brinkley for malpractice. Brinkley claimed they were all simply jealous of his wealth.

The Dream Lives On

Brinkley was really getting a feel for how power works. He decided if he were governor of Kansas, he could do what he very well liked. And he dang near was elected. He was the first to use airplanes as a political candidate running for office. He would zoom into a town, give his speech, and zoom to the next. Alf Landon, however, had the gubernatorial election handed to him. Landon then lost his presidential bid to Franklin D. Roosevelt.

I recently saw the movie “Lincoln,” and the director, Steven Spielberg, did a marvelous job showing some of the questionable things that Lincoln did to get the 13th amendment passed to abolish slavery. Here, then, we begin to speak about the greater good, or the ends justifying the means. Brinkley’s candidacy for governor of Kansas was a classic example of this. We hear daily in the news about the need for bipartisan work between political parties. Never was there more bipartisan cooperation between two parties than when John R. Brinkley ran for Governor for Kansas as a write-in candidate. Brinkley’s appeal to the common man had made him a crowd pleaser among the throngs of people who believed the good doctor was being persecuted by the big shots in government. The good bipartisan work worked. The two major parties simply stole the election from Brinkley on an unbelievable technicality. They pushed through an unethical plan that for a write-in vote to be counted, the voter would need to write Brinkley’s name exactly as it had appeared on Brinkley’s entry form. Brinkley had signed the entry form, “Dr. J.R. Brinkley.” If a voter changed anything, one single thing, even such as failing to put the “e” in Brinkley, that vote was thrown out. Thousands upon thousands of votes were thrown out, the election stolen and given to someone else, and thus the greater good.

No big deal; Brinkley simply moved his entire dog and pony show to Del Rio, Texas, very close to Mexico. He would continue to profit from rejuvenation, prostate, and insanity operations in his hospital there. The operations, however, would have to be performed by a team of licensed doctors who also wanted to realize the American dream. There was no shortage of them. There he also purchased a border blaster radio station, Station XERA, just over in Mexico with incredible, unbelievable wattage, so powerful that people heard his advertising being transmitted through barbwire fences. People sleeping in bed actually heard Brinkley’s advertising through their bed springs! (If one wrote this as fiction, people would not think it in the realm of possibility.)

My mom, living back in mountainous Jackson County, N.C., in the 1930s, never missed Brinkley’s Saturday Night Medical Question Box Show from Del Rio, Texas. It was one station Mom’s family could hear even with a low battery. They had no electricity, of course. Mom said her neighbors with no electricity or battery-powered radios would gather with mom’s family to hear the best of entertainment along with a little advertising. Brinkley’s station just happened to have the most wattage of any station in the world at that time. One never knew which great talent would appear, such as the Carter Family with young June at 10 years of age. A man named Johnny Cash heard her on Brinkley’s Station XERA, and decades later married her. During the show, Dr. Brinkley would advertise his Last Supper Tablecloths or Crazy Water Crystals. The Crazy Water Crystals from the “Crazy Well” in Texas had cured a woman with insanity, and one could also take the crystals and cure a “sluggish” system. Simply add tap water, and be finished with insanity, irregularity, or both, whatever the case might be.

Those of you who get annoyed at the amount of commercial advertising on television and computers can probably thank J.R. Brinkley. Before Brinkley, advertising over the radio was virtually nonexistent. The medium was not headed in that direction. People saw it as a way to transmit important (and factual) information. Brinkley was the first to really use the capability to reach the masses in order to sell something that would help the advertiser with the American dream. Brinkley’s legacy also affected some of you in ways that you probably didn’t realize. One of my favorite radio characters of all times was Wolfman Jack, a disc jockey at Brinkley’s old XERA building for decades after Brinkley’s death. The entertainment didn’t die with Brinkley. Many people of several generations, including mine, heard Wolfman Jack and his late-night music. Wolfman Jack got his start in the old Mexican building where XERA and crazy water crystals once blasted.

From Dream to Nightmare

As the 1930s came to an end, so did the bizarre career of John R. Brinkley, Jr. What makes this whole thing even more incredulous is that he probably would have never been disarmed totally, or lost his immense wealth, had he not felt so awesome as to sue; that’s right, Brinkley brought a libel suit. He sued the American Medical Association for calling him a quack in a published article. That act by Brinkley was a monumental mistake. While Brinkley was not a man to deal with details, trial lawyers can recreate all types of realities with minor details. When Brinkley took the stand, the AMA lawyer first focused on his wealth. He asked how many men it took to operate just one of his three yachts. It took 21 men. The lawyer asked how much the ring cost on his finger. It cost $4,300. But there seemed to be something that really took Brinkley by surprise in his libel case. He seems to have thought that he could just talk like he did on radio, to advertise. After all, he had always done that most successfully. The salient difference was that in court, someone else controlled the testimonials, not Brinkley.

The judge on the first day ruled that Brinkley’s cured tin men and scarecrows could not be heard. When the questions started about goats, Brinkley at first spoke in the most technical, medical manner that he possibly could. But after having had his corpse pummeled by the pesky lawyer interested in details, Brinkley began to get annoyed and started to crack and contradict himself. He even admitted that he just made a slit and inserted the glands, and did not graft arteries and nerves, the exact opposite of what he had claimed for two decades.

He lost the suit and was branded a quack. Thus, the American public saw a line drawn in the sand, over which a real medical doctor must not step. Brinkley gave the one agency he hated most exactly what they needed to help control his type of quackery. The border blaster ceased to blast Brinkley’s cures, and the IRS came knocking, as did the U.S. Post Office for mail fraud. The American Medical Association would have likely taken a water bowl and washed their hands of J. R. Brinkley if he had just remained silent after being defrocked and his first radio station closed. Why would he bring a libel suit against the American Medical Association, and open his sordid life to inspection? Why let the whole world know about the dead and the maimed, as a result of his scalpel? The number 40 appears again as there were over 40 known dead victims of Brinkley, not counting the ones who had overcome infection or were permanently impaired. I believe Brinkley began to think he was truly invincible. His enormous wealth and people’s jaw-dropping response to it had clouded Brinkley’s thinking. The biggest enemy of John R. Brinkley turned out to be John R. Brinkley.

After filing bankruptcy, and having obtained a blood clot that led to the amputation of his leg, The “Milford Messiah,” the “Ponce De Leon of Kansas,” as called by the people, ceased to be messianic, and never reached old age. Pope Brock reports in “Charlatan” that early on Brinkley claimed he had discovered how to reverse hysterectomies, was engaged in experimenting of transplanting eyes from one animal species to another, curing blindness, and causing whispers that he might soon be able to raise the dead. But alas at just 57 years of age in 1942, he couldn’t save himself. He is buried in Memphis, Tenn., beside his second, and much more submissive, wife.

Dr. Tom Cloer, Jr., is Professor Emeritus, Furman University, where he was recognized as the first Governor’s Professor of the Year for South Carolina in 1988. Dr. Cloer is one of two professors at Furman to have won both the Meritorious Teaching Award and the Meritorious Advising Award in the institution’s history. He graduated from Cumberland College in Kentucky, from Clemson University, and earned his Ph.D. at the University of South Carolina.