CHARLATAN: America’s Most Dangerous Huckster, the Man Who Pursued Him, and the Age of Flimflam by Pope Brock (Crown, Feb, 2008)
Review by Nancy Yanes-Hoffman, THE WRITING DOCTOR, .writingdoctor.typepad.com, email: firstname.lastname@example.org, 585-385-1515,
16 San Rafael Drive
What makes a quack run? What drives a pseudo-doctor, “Dr” John R Brinkley, to practice quack medicine rather than trying to heal the sick? What makes his nemesis, a power-hungry, AMA quack-buster, Dr Morris Fishbein, pursue this charlatan for more than 25 years? And what drives countless patients, men and women, “as guileless as the wide-mouthed shad.” to the charlatan’s door for help from whatever ails them? What turned an era, into “the golden age of quacks” And finally, is that era it over yet?
Ostensibly the story of one of America’s greatest quacks, “Dr.” John R Brinkley, Pope Brock’s ironic, witty chronicle of CHARLATAN (Crown, Feb, 2008) is about all the forces, individual and cultural,that contributed to Brinkley’s medical “successes” and finally, his downfall.
Playing upon the American dream of endless youth, of “rejuvenation,” (still alive-and-well as America’s favorite pipe dream) Brinkley’s greatest triumphs initially sprung from embedding billy goat testicles into the human scrotum and later even into women’s ovaries.
But in 1931, medicine caught up with him. After the Kansas State Medical Board tallied 42 countable deaths at Brinkley’s hands, with untold numbers of deaths after patients left Brinkley’s “hospitals,” it revoked his medical license. At the same time, the Federal Radio Commission, revoked his radio license. Undaunted, Brinkley ran for governor of Kansas—and almost won. His campaign pioneered airplane whistle-stops all over Kansas aided and abetted by radio promotion. In case you hadn't noticed, these innovations are still alive and kicking today.
After the licenses' revocations and the loss of the governorship,Brinkley got the Kansas message. He moved to Texas. In Del Rio, Texas on the Mexican border, he built a mansion fit for a charlatan and a hotel-like “hospital” for prostate surgery patients. Ever the innovator, he used Mexican-based radio to promote himself and his medicine.
And he made money. Lots of money. He charged $750 for “gonad surgery,” but his fee for prostate surgery was only $250 a pop. Always, it was cash on the barrelhead—before the operation—just as present-day surgical offices insist on insurance cards and co-pay before the visit.
Money made money. He bankrolled “Border Blasters,” his high-potency radio shows emanating from his million-watt station, XERA, in Villa Acuna, Mexico into the most powerful station broadcasting on American air waves. Patients heard and flocked to Del Rio for glandular injections—and later, bargain-basement prostate surgery.
One of XERA’s claims to fame was Brinkley’s Medical Question Box. Listeners sent in letters detailing their health problems. Brinkley prescribed treatment bought from pharmacists hired to kickback percentages of sales. Something like Senator Bill Frist’s long-distance diagnosis of Terry Schiavo’s problems. As the song goes, “ainsi c’est toujours le meme chose.”
Del Rio was good to Brinkley. During his five years of broadcasting and prescribing, he pocketed about $12 million. But in 1938, another Del Rio doctor began stealing Brinkley’s thunder by selling the same operations for a lower fee.
So Brinkley moved to Little Rock, Arkansas in 1938. But Brinkley's Midas touch had become tin. Things were going wrong. In 1939, he lost a libel suit against his obsessed Ahab, Dr. Morris Fishbein. Not only was Fishbein the longtime editor of the American Medical Association (JAMA) and AMA president, but he was an equally egotistical firebrand, who had spent much of his professional life committed to bringing Brinkley down.
Brinkley’s testimony inadvertently helped Fishbein’s case. On the stand, Brinkley admitted that his surgery was something like a vasectomy. Further, his celebrated Formula 1020 for rejuvenating male desire and performance was only dressed-up colored water.
After Brinkley lost his appeal, the judge accused him of being “a charlatan and a quack in the ordinary,well-understood meaning of the words.” Hearing this, disgruntled patients filed civil suit after civil suit. Down on his luck, declaring bankruptcy in 1941, Brinkley was indicted for mail fraud. With the suits pending and dogged by ill health, Brinkley died alone of a blood clot in 1942.
What made Brinkley run? CHARLATAN, despite its wondrously deft insights isn’t sure. Whether greed alone powered his engine or a healthy (word used inadvisedly) dose of egotistical narcissism fueled his exploits remains unknown. In fact, what made Fishbein run? Fishbein was so much a mirror image of Brinkley—albeit law-abiding and medicine-upholding—that the two were American medical twins.
If Brinkley himself was dross, CHARLATAN is gold. Brock’s history of American medicine’s feats and flaws, achievements, anecdotes, and trickery invites the reader to compare medicine then with medicine now. In one of the many nuggets of little-known Americana sparking his tale, Brock reports that more than 400 of the 526 radio stations accepted no advertising because “Radio Czar Herbert Hoover, the secretary of commerce, declared it ‘inconceivable that we should allow so great a possibility for service to be drowned in advertiser chatter.’”