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Jan. 16, 2009
TOPEKA As Kansans, we’re not above poking a little off-color fun at Dr. John Brinkley, one of the more infamous rascals in our catalog.
We can’t help it. There’s just something about a huckster surgeon convincing hundreds of middle-age men that he could restore their sagging virility by transplanting goat testicles that, well, invites a b-a-a-a-d joke or two.
In his latest book, “Charlatan,” New York-based journalist Pope Brock, shares the serendipitous tale of Bill Stittsworth, a 46-year-old farmer — “big featured, unshaven, in a crumpled hat” — visiting Brinkley’s office in the fall of 1917.
Stittsworth complains that he has “no pep,” that he’s “a flat tire.”
After a brief silence, Stittsworth reportedly looked out the window and forlornly said, “Too bad I don’t have billy-goat nuts.”
Too bad, indeed. Brinkley, two nights later, performed the 15-minute procedure on a willing Stittsworth and a not-so-willing goat. It was the first transplant of many.
The operation proved so successful that Mrs. Stittsworth insisted on a matching set of goat ovaries. Later, after giving birth to a bouncing baby boy, she and her frisky husband named the wee lad, er, kid, Billy.
Newspapers across the country ran a photo of Brinkley holding the littlest Stittsworth. The cutline read, “Dr. John. R. Brinkley, a surgeon, has startled the scientific world by planting goat glands to men and women as a means of restoring lost heritage.”
Brinkley, a master of self-promotion, became fabulously wealthy, charging his eager patients $750 for each operation — cash only, no barter, no credit, no exceptions.
“Charlatan” is a fascinating account of Brinkley’s rise to glory and power and the then-fledgling American Medical Society’s campaign to bring him down. He was, after all, a quack.
“Let’s not forget that 42 death certificates were presented as evidence in the hearing to lift his license in Kansas in 1930,” Brock told KHI News Service. “(Brinkley) was a brilliant man, obviously, but he had certain psychopathic qualities as well. I don’t think he deliberately murdered anybody, but I also think it was a matter of complete indifference to him if his patients ended up dead, maimed, or staggered off and got well. None of it mattered as long as he got paid and got paid a lot.”
Still, Brinkley was adept at seeing the big picture. He used his Milford-based radio station, KFKB (Kansas First, Kansas Best) to promote his surgeries while peddling thousands of prescriptions to faithful listeners whose pharmacists were quick in sending Brinkley money under the table. In the process, Brinkley invented the infomercial.
Three days after losing his medical license, Brinkley decided to spite his critics by running for governor. He used his infomercials, his airplane and hillbilly music to engage voters in ways few politicians had ever dreamed of.
He would have won if he hadn’t had to run as a write-in candidate and if Attorney General William A. Smith hadn’t issued an order, three days before the election, that Brinkley votes would be counted only if voters penciled in J. R. Brinkley, precisely, not something like “Doc Brinkley.”
State officials needed 12 days to count the votes. “Brinkley was so popular,” Brock said, “he carried three counties in Oklahoma.”
Brinkley moved his empire to Del Rio, Texas in 1933. There, he built one of the nation’s first “border blaster” radio stations, XERA, in Villa Acuna, Mexico, giving country music — especially the Carter Family — a national stage.
Brinkley declared bankruptcy in 1941. In poor health, he died a year later.
“He was the medical entrepreneur of his day,” said Jim Reardon, a former Topeka city councilman and amateur historian who has studied Brinkley. “At a time when the average AMA doc was making $5,000 a year, he was making nearly $1 million. No one in the medical field made more money than he did.
“You could say he introduced the medical business to mass marketing,” Reardon said.
He also had a hand in launching the neighborhood pharmacy.
“Pharmacies used to be part of the doctor’s office,” Reardon said, “Brinkley happened to come along right when the pharmacies were going out on their own — they loved Brinkley because he sent them customers. The doctors hated him.”
“Charlatan” was released in paperback this week.
“It’s a really good read,” Reardon said.