Medical fraud is as rampant today as it has always been, but John Brinkley was among the greatest medical frauds of all time. From the 1920s onward, between World War I and World War II, he became fabulously wealthy by surgically implanting the testicles of goats into the scrotums of men to “cure” impotence and into the bellies of women “so they could become pregnant.” He charged $750 per operation (equal to about $20,000 today). Then as now, doctors knew that transplanting living tissue from animals, or even humans, into another human causes an immune reaction that soon destroys the transplanted tissue. Its breakdown products are quickly removed from the body. When a person receives transplanted tissue, he must be given powerful drugs to suppress his immunity so he will not kill that transplant.
Today, millions of American men whose bodies produce adequate amounts of testosterone risk their health by taking prescription hormones that can increase risk for heart attacks, and use their money on over-the-counter pills that they think will cure impotence, make them more sexual and give them larger muscles. You cannot legally buy any pill that has been proven to treat or cure impotence or raise testosterone without a prescription. Foods such as oysters, clams, asparagus, eggs and caviar do nothing to increase sexual potency.
“Dr.” John R. Brinkley never received a legitimate medical degree. He was born in 1885 in the hills of North Carolina and his first exposure to the practice of medicine came from the fact that he was the illegitimate son of a man who was a medic in the Confederate Army during the Civil War. They lived in abject poverty. His mother died of pneumonia when he was five and his father died when he was ten. He attended a one-room log cabin primary school.
He went to several unaccredited medical schools, but was not graduated from any of them partly because of his failure to pay the required tuitions. In his late twenties, he opened a medical practice without a license to practice medicine in Greenville, South Carolina and advertised that he could give injections to increase a man’s sexual prowess and desire. He charged $25 a shot (equal to $600 today) and had to leave town abruptly two months later. The local newspaper reported that he left town owing unpaid bills to more than 30 merchants. He showed up in Knoxville, Tennessee where he was arrested and sent back to Greenville for practicing medicine without a license and defrauding the local merchants.
In 1914 at age 29, he moved to Kansas City where he finished his last year of medical school at Eclectic Medical University which had so many curriculum deficiencies that it was approved as a medical school in only eight states. In 1917 at age 32 and during World War I, he enlisted in the army, but two months later he was back on the streets because of a “nervous breakdown”.
In 1918, after World War I, he opened a 16-room clinic in Milford, where he was immediately inundated with patients because of the world-wide flu pandemic. After the flu pandemic passed, he got patients to come to him by advertising that he could restore virility and fertility by transplanting goat testicles for a charge of $750 per operation. In 1923, he bought KFKB, the first radio station in Kansas, and had a regular radio program in which he answered questions on medical problems and sold his own patent medicines. He made so much money that he built his own hospital, drug store and bank. His Brinkley Pharmaceutical Association generated the equivalent of $10 million per year in today’s market values.
Trouble with the Law
By the 1930s, he had signed the death certificates of more than 42 people who came to him as healthy patients. Morris Fishbein, the editor of the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA), made a career of exposing medical fraud. After his article in JAMA announced that John R. Brinkley had no approved medical degree, the Kansas Medical Board revoked Brinkley’s medical license. Brinkley responded to losing his medical license by using his radio station as a base to run for Governor of Kansas. He sent a live goat to a newspaper reporter who wrote an article critical of him. In spite of his incredible lack of qualifications for public office, he received more than 180,000 votes. More than 30,000 of the total ballots were disqualified, but if those ballots had been accepted, Brinkley could have won the election. Six months later, the Federal Radio Commission refused to renew his broadcast license because:
- His programs were mostly advertising for products of dubious value,
- some of his broadcasts were obscene, and
- his medical radio program was “contrary to the public interest.”
- He sued the commission, but lost the case.
- He ran for public office two more times but lost each time.
On to Mexico Where There were Fewer Restrictions
Charged with fraud and without medical and broadcasting licenses, Brinkley sold KFKB in Kansas for $90,000. He moved to Del Rio, Texas and built XER, a 50,000-watt radio station in Mexico, the first of many Mexican stations that sold worthless products to Americans. Mexico did not restrict fraudulent advertising, so Brinkley could continue to sell his medical products over the airways. Mexico allowed him to increase his broadcast signal to one million watts, making it the most powerful radio station in the world. His ads could be heard throughout North America, including Kansas. He continued to advertise his worthless medical products and he sold advertising spots to people selling dubious products such as simulated diamonds, unsupported life insurance policies, personal fortune predictions and religious symbols. He opened a hospital in Del Rio and built a hotel there, where he lived for a while with his wife. He built a magnificent mansion in Rio, Texas, a short ride across a bridge from Mexico.
Back to Testicular Transplants
In 1934, the United States put so much pressure on Mexico that it revoked his license to broadcast. He responded by continuing to do goat gland transplants, vasectomies and prostate surgery at $1,000 per operation ($17,500 in today’s market), and to prescribe his own brands of worthless medical pills. By 1936, he continued to do so well that he owned a huge mansion, a dozen Cadillacs, a fountain garden with 8,000 bushes, a huge greenhouse, his own zoo filled with animals from Madagascar, an ocean-going yacht and his own personal airplane and pilot.
The Harm He was Causing
With all his personal gain, he was harming the people who believed in him. His implanted goat testicles were immediately destroyed by the patient’s own immunity, or worse still, his patients would suffer an immune reaction or infection that would cause massive swelling, high fever, and make them very sick. A number of his patients died after surgery. He was served with more than a dozen wrongful death lawsuits between 1930 and 1941. He performed goat implants on people for the most inappropriate reasons; the American Medical Association reported that he implanted goat ovaries into a women to treat a spinal cord tumor. He operated frequently while drunk
Fraud Investigations and Bankruptcy
In 1938, The Journal of the American Medical Association published “Modern Medical Charlatans,” listing Brinkley’s false medical products and questionable surgeries. Brinkley sued the AMA for libel and lost. The jury wrote that Brinkley “should be considered a charlatan and a quack.” After that, Brinkley was sued by many of his patients for well over three million dollars. In 1941, after the IRS investigated Brinkley for tax fraud and the Post Office Department investigated him for mail fraud, he declared bankruptcy.
He Served as His Own Doctor
He followed the same deceptive practices that he used on his patients on himself. He didn’t exercise, ate an unhealthful diet and became extremely obese. This caused diabetes that was so out of control that he had at least three separate heart attacks and a massive blood clot that forced the doctors to amputate one of his legs. On May 26, 1942, Brinkley died of heart failure, the most common cause of death in diabetics. His house in Del Rio, the Brinkley Mansion, still stands today as a Texas Historic Landmark.
We still see advertisements for over-the-counter medicines that are supposed to make a man more sexual and potent, but these are either drugs being sold illegally without prescriptions, or are useless substances that are not supported by any good data. People waste huge amounts of money on these products, but none of today’s charlatans are likely to reach the spectacular financial success based on the goat testicle deceptions of John R. Brinkley.
Dr. Gabe Mirkin is a Villager. Learn more at www.drmirkin.com