Archive for October, 2010

A Major Life Experience (and the Story of Dr. John R. Brinkley’s Cure for Low Libido)

Monday, October 4th, 2010

“Dude, you had a major life experience,” Justin said.  “Where the F is the blog?”

“I did?” I asked.  I assumed he was talking about our time in Europe, but I felt like being a jerk.  “What was my major life experience?”

“Amsterdam with me,” he replied disappointedly.  “I thought it was special.”

“Wrong,” I said, “but I’m sure you’ve been wrong before.”

“Yes, I have,” he confirmed.

Dr. John R. Brinkley wasn’t a doctor at all.  Although he had spent three years at Bennet Medical College in Chicago, he’d never graduated.  He called himself a doctor on the basis of a $500 diploma he had purchased from the Eclectic Medical University of Kansas City, Missouri.  And as absurd as it sounds, in the early half on the twentieth century this piece of paper gave him the right to practice medicine in Arkansas and Kansas, among other states.

Additionally, it was this man who invented a medical procedure that not only made him a multi-millionaire, but also killed a countless number of patients.

It all began in 1918 when Brinkley opened a 16-room clinic in Milford, Kansas.  A farmer came in to complain about a decline in his sex drive.  Brinkley recalled his previous job as house doctor at the Swift meatpacking company in Kansas.  While there, Brinkley was amazed by the vigorous mating activities of the goats destined for slaughter.

So, Brinkley jokingly told the farmer that what he needed was a pair of goat glands.  It’s disputed whether the farmer then begged Brinkley to do the operation, or if Brinkley paid the farmer to go along with the experiment, but in any case, Brinkley went ahead with the operation, charging the man $150 (over $2,000 in current value).

Within weeks the farmer was back to thank the “doctor” for giving him back his libido. And when his wife gave birth to a baby boy, the satisfied farmer spread the word about Brinkley. Soon Brinkley’s business was booming.  He began promoting goat glands as a cure for 27 ailments, ranging from dementia to emphysema to flatulence to acne. The testimonials poured in and so did the money. Brinkley was charging $750 (over $8,000 currently) per transplant, and he could barely keep up with the demand.

The procedure itself was simple.  The patient would check into Brinkley’s private hospital.  The “doctor” would collect his fee, and then escort the patient to the rear of the building where he/she could choose the goat of his/her liking.  The animal was castrated on the spot and its testicles placed inside a slit cut in the man’s scrotum or in the abdomen of the woman (near the ovaries).  Then the incision was swiftly sutured.

If all went well, the placebo effect would kick in after a week or so, and Brinkley would have another success on his hands. If rotting goats’ testicles or gangrenous incisions brought death to his patients, as a licensed doctor Brinkley could sign their death certificates.

Brinkley’s fortune fed his appalling taste. At the height of his success, in the mid-1930s, Brinkley owned three yachts, a vast mansion with his name picked out in the garden in flashing neon lights, and a two-story pipe organ played by a man from Graumann’s Chinese Theater.  His admiration for Hitler was reflected in his swimming pool, which he had tiled with miniature swastikas.

It was also around this time, between 1930 and 1941, that Brinkley was sued more than a dozen times for wrongful death.

In 1938, Brinkley’s long-time nemesis, Morris Fishbein, editor of The Journal of the American Medical Association and a man who made his career exposing medical frauds, published a two-part series called “Modern Medical Charlatans” that included a thorough repudiation of Brinkley’s career, as well as exposing his questionable medical credentials.  Fishbein wrote:

Without anything resembling a real medical education, with licenses purchased and secured through extraordinary manipulations of political appointees, and with consummate gall beyond anything ever revealed by any other charlatan, Brinkley… continues to demonstrate his astuteness in shaking shekels from the pockets of credulous Americans.

Fishbein was trying to force Brinkley into a showdown, and it worked.

The “doctor” sued Fishbein for libel and $250,000 in damages (over $3.8 million in current value).  The trail began in Texas on March 22, 1939.  A few days later, the jury found for Fishbein, stating that Brinkley “should be considered a charlatan and a quack in the ordinary, well-understood meaning of those words”.  Brinkley’s licenses to practice medicine were stripped.

The jury’s verdict unleashed a barrage of lawsuits against Brinkley, by some estimates well over $3 million in total value. Also around this time, the IRS began investigating Brinkley for tax fraud. He declared bankruptcy in 1941.  Soon after his bankruptcy, the US Postal Service began investigating him for mail fraud.

On June 20th, 1941, Brinkley suffered a coronary occlusion.  On August 23rd, a blood clot in his leg which resulted in amputation five days later.  On September 1st, heart failure.  On September 23rd, the US Postal Service slapped him with a $12 million mail fraud suit.  On December 22nd, another heart failure.  Finally, on May 26th, 1942, he died at his home in San Antonio, Texas.

His house, commonly called the Brinkley Mansion, still stands today at 512 Qualia Drive in Del Rio.  It is considered a Texas Historic Landmark.  I would like to go see it someday.

Brinkley Mansion (above), Dr. John R. Brinkley (below)