Charlatan: America’s Most Dangerous Huckster, the Man Who Pursued him and the Age of Flimflam

Dr._John_R._Brinkley

John Brinkley

I just finished reading Charlatan: America’s Most Dangerous Huckster, the Man Who Pursued Him, and the Age of Flimflam by Pope Brock, which is a real page-turner. It is one of the better books I’ve read over the past few years. Much of the book reads like a suspense thriller, though it is in essence a biography of the biggest quack in the U.S in the first half of the 20th century, John Brinkley, and his arch-nemesis, Dr Morris Fishbein, editor of the Journal of the American Medical Association and the biggest quack-buster of his time.

Born in North Carolina to a poor family in 1885, John Brinkley would eventually become a merchant of patent medicines, learning all the tricks of the trade of this very popular form of quackery. He obtained a phony degree from a diploma mill to pose as a doctor, and eventually made his way to Milford, Kansas in 1917, a small town in need of a doctor. It was in Milford where he got the idea of surgically transplanting goat testicles into men to restore their virility.

Brinkley had many satisfied patients and his Kansas clinic flourished. He eventually started a radio station(KFKB) to help promote his dubious treatments, almost single-handedly inventing the infomercial in the process. His charisma and marketing genius brought him even more customers and success.

He even started an innovative radio program called “Medical Question Box”, in which he would answer letters on the air from listeners with health problems, and then recommend a specific pharmaceutical treatment(often nothing but colored water). Upon hearing this, many of his listeners who had similar health problems would then purchase the same drug from Brinkley associated pharmacies throughout the Midwest at inflated prices. Brinkley got a cut of each sale, making him a very rich man.

Meanwhile, Morris Fishbein in Chicago would write article after article exposing Brinkley as a quack and calling him a “menace”; this had little affect, and Brinkley would continue to prosper and kill some of his patients.

Brinkley came close to settling in California, sensing that there was a lot more money to be made there than in Kansas. At the time, California’s salubrious, warmer climate attracted a lot of people from around the country seeking rejuvenation and a better life. It also attracted a lot of hucksters seeking to exploit them. Fortunately, Brinkley’s attempt at obtaining a medical license in California was blocked by Fishbein and others who protested to the authorities. Stuck in small-town Kansas, Brinkley continued raking in the dough, and living a luxurious lifestyle which included a growing number of expensive cars.

Fishbein’s indefatigable efforts to get the RTC(forerunner of the FCC) to revoke Brinkley’s radio license finally paid off, and Brinkley was taken off the air. Not long after, Brinkley also lost his medical license in the state of Kansas. What did Brinkley do next? He announced he was running for governor, with only 5 weeks to election day. Though he lost, he came very close to winning; he would occasionally entertain the idea of running for president.

Brinkley was very far from defeated though. He relocated his clinic to Del Rio, Texas and operated a radio station just across the border in Cuidad Acuña, Mexico, out of reach from the U.S government. Free of any regulation, he used this radio station(XER-AM), to promote his quack remedies and political beliefs, first broadcasting in October, 1931. XER would eventually produce the most powerful radio signal in the world, initiating the era of “border blaster” radio. On a clear day, the signal could be picked up as far away as Finland.

Besides promoting his dangerous treatments, increasingly bizarre conspiratorial political beliefs, and complaining about getting persecuted by the establishment, Brinkley also promoted many early country and blues music performers on his radio broadcasts, like the Carter family. Brinkley was by now a very wealthy man with a large mansion full of treasures, a fleet of expensive cars, and spacious yachts he would spend his summers on. Besides this, he was one of the most famous(or infamous) men in the country, and was popular with the locals since his lucrative practice, trailblazing radio station, and his contributions to civic improvements helped Del Rio prosper during the worst years of the Great Depression.

Eventually a competitor came to town, charging a lot less than Brinkley for the same sham procedures. In spite of Brinkley’s popularity and connections, his efforts at driving out this upstart failed, and Brinkley would eventually relocate his clinic yet again, this time to Little Rock, Arkansas.

Brinkley’s hubris in his never-ending war with quack-buster Morris Fishbein would eventually lead to his undoing, but I don’t want to spoil the rest for those who don’t know how it ends.

Brinkley wasn’t just one of the most successful quacks in American history, he was also one of the most prolific serial killers America ever produced. It is difficult to know how many people he killed with his dangerous and dubious treatments. Many more, possibly at least in the hundreds, were maimed.

John Brinkley is a stark reminder of the extreme gullibility of humans when it comes to health matters. Reading between the lines of this book, it’s not just about Brinkley, but is also a powerful indictment of quackery as it exists today. There may be many more laws today to protect consumers, but quackery is very much alive. I see a little bit of Brinkley in some of the better known quacks out there today, who often practice “alternative medicine”, which is what quackery calls itself these days. While they may not be prolific killers like Brinkley, they still prey on the vulnerable, and use the same marketing strategies.

All in all, a very educational, enjoyable, and well-written book for those interested in the history of modern medicine, as well as quackery, or who just like to read a true story that vividly portrays what America was like in the first half of the 20th century.

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4 responses to “Charlatan: America’s Most Dangerous Huckster, the Man Who Pursued him and the Age of Flimflam

  1. Interesting. Personally, I don’t believe/trust big pharma 99.99% of the time. I see the medical industry in the west (especially in America), as just that: an industry; there to make money. Not sure if we agree on this one therefore, when I say that for the last 15 years of my life, I’ve followed natural remedies when I’ve been ill; I never go to doctors or dentists – I avoid both like the plague. To me, John Brinkley sounds like a version of today’s big pharma and the politicians that support pharma’s exploits. I’m not surprised that so many failed to see this person’s true intentions until it was too late; again, that’s the reality (or at least my version of reality) I see with people taking their many prescription medicines today (which seem to have more side-effects than the symptoms they purport to cure). So, not sure if we agree on my belief in natural remedies, but the book itself sounds interesting, and is yet another portrayal of: human stupidity kindled with the few that exploit this ever-present state-of-mind within the human masses (ignorance).

  2. Thanks for your comments, Erika.

    Like you, I avoid doctors as much as possible, and I don’t trust big pharma either – that’s why we need the FDA and very strict regulations when it comes to drugs and medical treatments, as well as medical education and licenses. Science-based medicine is more than just pharmaceutical drugs. It is scientific research that has revealed that vegans tend to be healthier on average, that smoking causes cancer, and all sorts of other life-enhancing discoveries.

    As far as “natural” remedies go, like herbs, don’t you think they should be as strictly regulated and scientifically tested for efficacy as pharmaceutical drugs? I know I do, but the people who make money selling herbal supplements don’t, and they aren’t selling herbs for altruistic reasons.

    This is where there seems to be a double standard. Pharmaceutical drugs in the U.S are rigorously tested for safety and efficacy before going on the market, although the system isn’t perfect. However, they are doing what they can to develop drugs with fewer side effects. But if something is part of “alternative medicine”, many of its practitioners and believers don’t believe it should be tested similarly, just because it’s “natural” or “alternative” whatever. If the herb has been tested and been shown not to work, many people will still take it. It’s very likely just a placebo. Do you think people should also take pharmaceutical drugs that have been proven ineffective for the condition they are taking it for?

    Not all herbal/plant remedies are “alternative” since science has shown that a few of them do work(or at least active chemicals do), though herbal supplements can vary greatly in quality and the amount of active ingredients. It has been said many times before, but I will say it again: when an alternative medicine is proven to work it is simply called medicine. Herbs are something of a fuzzy area since they are studied by scientists to help them develop new drugs(like the anti-cancer taxol from yew trees) the anti, while at the same time many herbal supplements that have been shown to be useless are still being sold in stores. Just because something is “natural”, doesn’t necessarily make it safer or better.

    This is why, for the most part, I consider practically everything that is called “alternative medicine” quackery, which also includes the scientifically implausible homeopathy and the ridiculous spiritual mumbo jumbo of reiki healing. If people want to use them, fine, but hospitals shouldn’t be offering them as if they are scientifically proven.

    If a natural remedy is proven to work, I will gladly take it. I like to use Pubmed to see what scientific research says.

    You say Brinkley reminds you more of today’s big pharma, but having read the book he sounds so much more like today’s alternative medicine pushers. Reliance on testimonials instead of peer-reviewed scientific studies, infomercials, insane conspiracy theories, faux populism, and crying about persecution by the establishment – does this sound like a mainstream doctor influenced by big pharma to you? These are tactics frequently used by today’s quack/alternative medicine practitioners. It was a mainstream medical doctor, Dr Fishbein, and the American Medical Association who eventually put an end to Brinkley. These are the kind of people usually considered the “bad guys” by those in the alternative medicine movement. Brinkley wasn’t even a real doctor though he did go to medical school for a few years(didn’t graduate), and then got a phony medical degree from a diploma mill.

    The person today who comes closest to being like Brinkley in my opinion is making headlines again – http://www.cnn.com/2014/03/17/justice/illinois-pitch-man/

    Kevin Trudeau hasn’t performed dangerous surgeries and may not have killed anyone, but the tactics he has used to promote himself and his therapies are virtually the same as Brinkley used on his radio shows, and he has similar enemies: conspiracy theories about the evil big pharma medical establishment hiding cures, appealing to people who don’t trust mainstream medicine(a kind of faux populism), the persecution complex(he has serious legal problems), his use of the naturalistic fallacy(natural is better!), and he even has a cult-like following who swear he is some kind of visionary. Also like Brinkley, he also became very rich, far richer than the vast majority of doctors, through his deceit and exploitation of the gullible. I could name many others who use similar tactics and have gotten rich by appealing to gullible anti-establishment types who are into “natural” or “alternative” health.

    Stanislaw Burzynski also reminds me a lot of Brinkley(http://www.sciencebasedmedicine.org/stanislaw-burzynski-trying-to-relive-his-success-beating-the-rap-in-the-1990s/). His therapies aren’t proven to work, but he keeps on doing them, finding legal loopholes to continue practicing and making good money from it. Both Burzynski and his supporters also make use of the tired old persecution by the evil establishment tactic for why they have legal problems and why mainstream medicine won’t accept their treatments. He also uses testimonials instead of rigorous, peer-reviewed scientific studies, usually as a part of self-promotional films.

    It should be noted that one of the great recent triumphs of science-based medicine is something we don’t hear about very often, the fact that people diagnosed with AIDS can now have almost the same life expectancy as people without AIDS. This is something that has changed in just a little over a generation. Back in the 1980s, a diagnosis of AIDS was a death sentence. Nowadays, thanks to the latest drugs, it is a much more manageable disease, though these drugs unfortunately have pesky side effects in many people – http://www.cnn.com/2013/12/01/health/hiv-today/

    None of this means that big pharma should be let off the hook. And yes there is at least a bit of Brinkley in them. They are among the biggest corrupters of science and distorters of truth out there, and due to Vioxx, and other killer drugs, I believe we need even more regulations. We especially need to make sure they don’t use their money to influence doctor’s decisions. I appreciate your comments.

    I recommend reading http://www.sciencebasedmedicine.org/ for more info.

    I hope you’re doing great, and I admire all you do for animals.

  3. It is also worth noting that the “Health Freedom Movement”(http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Health_freedom_movement), which is a lose coalition of alternative medicine practitioners and advocates, had they existed in Brinkley’s time, probably would have been more on Brinkley’s side than Fishbein/American Medical Association/Scientific Medicine’s side. After all, they favor lower standards for evidence, not higher. They tend to be more anti-establishment, not pro-establishment.

  4. Goat testicles. The mind reels.

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