[The Postcard Life] Dr. John Brinkley: Quite the quack

One of the great personalities of American medical quackery is a fascinating, ne’er-do-well egomaniacal character named John Brinkley.

John R. Brinkley was a real scalawag, widely known as the “Goat Gland Doctor.” Aside from his bizarre medical malpractices, Brinkley was also a pioneer in commercial radio broadcasting, and to the delight and gratitude of postcard collectors, through all of this funny business, he published many postcards, most of them real photos. Lew 1 Brinkley.jpgThe cards promoted his business ventures in the outlandish medical and high powered broadcasting worlds, and himself: James (sometimes Jno.) R. (for Richard, sometimes for Romulus) Brinkley.

“Doctor” Brinkley and his fur-clad wife.

He was born in Beta, N.C. in 1885 but was orphaned while still a young boy and rasied by an aunt. In 1907 he married Sally Wilke, and the couple set out finding work as they could. John answered his calling as a salesman of nostrums and cure-alls. Lew 2 Mrs Brinkley.jpgHe received his medical training as an assistant to a “surgeon” who treated “gentlemen” with sexually transmitted diseases. In 1913 Sally began divorce proceedings against the budding “doctor,” took their three daughters and left.

Inspired by his medical and snake oil experience, Brinkley set himself up in business using a sexual cure-all of tinted water injections he had “invented.” By 1915 (and before his divorce was finalized) he had married Minerva “Minnie” Telitha Jones of Memphis, who was to become his business partner, known as Doctor Mrs. Brinkley. Heading west across the Mississippi into Arkansas, Brinkley worked as a rural physician and was able to purchase a medical degree from the Eclectic Medical University in Kansas City. Licensed and “legitimate,” he was ready for the big time.

The Brinkleys relocated to Milford, Kan., and by 1918, he had a new scam… er, excuse me, a new treatment that had been suggested to him by a farmer: implanting goat testicles into men with drooping libidos. In spite of the hefty $750 fee – which included hospital charges – patients lined up at his door. Legitimate Chicago doctors drove him out of town when he tried to open a branch clinic there, but his operation had many champions, including an owner of the Los Angeles Times. A steady stream of men came to Milford every day to plunk down their cash and submit to the operation, and by 1927, Lew 3 Sani.jpgthe year son Johnny Boy was born, Brinkley was ready for the really big time.

Brinkley Hospital, Milford, Kans.

Radio! He installed a megawatt transmitter in Milford and began hawking his goat gland operation and patent medicines over the airwaves, blasting them from coast to coast with high-powered equipment. Mixed in with Bible-thumping religious programs, down home country music and stories for children, he would read listeners’ letters describing their medical problems over the air, and diagnose and prescribe his herbal remedies. Listenership for KFKB (Kansas First, Kansas Best) was huge, and letters poured in from throughout the continent. Every letter was responded to with a barrage of brochures and pamphlets touting Dr. Brinkley’s services, and hundreds of patients arrived each week at the Milford railway depot with $750 in hand.

But only so many sufferers could come in person. To help the rest, which now included those suffering from “female trouble,” Dr. Brinkley expanded his line of patent medicines – sold by local druggists at inflated prices with kickbacks to the good Dr. – and “prescribed” only by number. Lew 8 Home.jpgOn-air pleas of corporal distress would receive replies such as “Take two #60, one #87 and a #54 every day, available at your local drugstore or by mail.” The money poured in.

Doctor Brinkley’s beautiful home and yacht, Del Rio, Texas.

Meanwhile Brinkley and his shenanigans attracted the ire of medical authorities and the state of Kansas. Both wanted Brinkley shut down. Lawsuits stayed the onslaught from the medical world, and Dr. Brinkley attempted to attack the state’s challenge by running for governor as a write-in candidate in 1930. Entering the race after the deadline for listing on the ballot, he campaigned by radio and by personal appearance at towns throughout the state, arriving in his white Cadillac or private airplane. He received the most votes! But, with after-the-fact contrivance, the attorney general declared 50,000 of the ballots invalid. Brinkley ran again in the next election; he “lost” again, and still again in the following election.

The pressure from the state and Washington had grown. The legitimate medical establishment was working to force him out of business, and the federal radio authorities canceled his broadcast permit. Brinkley made a bold move and relocated his headquarters to Del Rio, Texas, and moved his radio transmitter to a town across the border in Mexico. Brinkley and his minions were still performing “the operation,” but it was the patent medicines that brought in the big bucks. XER (later XERA), the new radio station, broadcast at a powerful 500,000 watts, outblasting all other stations, and, then, as if that weren’t enough, he doubled its power to 1 million watts. Lew 7 Roswell.jpgBrinkley was now indelibly entered in the historic records of border radio.

Dr. Brinkley’s headquarters, Roswell Hotel, Del Rio, Texas.

Del Rio, a sleepy town kept lethargic by the doldrums of the Depression, welcomed its new citizen. Thousands of Brinkley patients and millions of dollars poured into town. The Roswell Hotel, where his radio programs originated, assumed shrine-like status. Brinkley bought land, built a mansion, cruised in his yacht, flew in his plane and flaunted his success, all the while encrusted in diamond jewelry. On the air Brinkley played an especially heinous role in the early days of World War II, praising and kowtowing to sympathizers of Teutonic supremacy and encouraging anti-Semitic rabble-rousers.

Again, he was forced out of the state, and he headed east to Little Rock, Ark., where he built new hospitals and even opened his own golf course. And once more he was in trouble, confronted with a huge tax bill from Washington, pressure from the AMA and lawsuits on behalf of unsatisfied – injured or dead – “patients.” A massive heart attack ended the battle. J. R. Brinkley died penniless on May 28, 1942.

Brinkley’s entire story is open to question. He was a master of camouflage and deceit, and few truths are clearly recorded. The uncertainty began with his official biography; commissioned and dictated by him, it is, like his life, a pack of lies.

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