Sunday, April 13, 2014

Charlatan America’s Most Dangerous Huckster, The Man Who Pursued Him, And The Age of Flimflam by Pope Brock

In 1917, after years of peddling worthless patent medicines with wondrous claims, John R. Brinkley set up a medical practice in the small town of Milford, Kansas. But this was no ordinary doctor’s office. Dr. Brinkley had a new procedure guaranteed to restore masculine virility and cure all manner of diseases. Soon men from all over the globe were flocking to this tiny Kansas town, eager to pay their $750, pick a goat from the pen, and be wheeled into the operating room to have their scrotum sliced open and the goat’s testicles sewn inside so that, as soon as the incisions healed, they would be as randy as a billygoat. Soon women were getting into the act too and having goat ovaries implanted inside them in the hope of conceiving. Even deep in the Great Depression, Dr. Brinkley was in the money, bringing in $12 million a year when the average doctor was lucky to earn $3,000.  He enthusiastically seized on advances in radio broadcasting to give questionable medical advice, advertise his products, promote politics, and popularize country and hillbilly music.

But America’s richest and most famous doctor soon had the American Medical Association’s quackbuster on his tail. Dr. Morris Fishbein was determined to put Dr. Brinkley out of business and expose the goat gland operation for the fraud it really was, and a dangerous one at that, as many developed infections and died.

This is another fine example of non-fiction writing at its best, it gives the reader a window not just its subject’s life, but also his world. I’ve always been fascinated by the old patent medicines that promised miracles in a glass bottle, in fact an antique cod liver oil bottle is on my desk as I write this, so I really enjoyed this one. If you like tales of audacious conmen, I think you’ll enjoy meeting Dr. Brinkley and his formidable adversary. This would also be a great book for anyone who enjoys interesting non-fiction books that are not dry and dull, or the history of medicine or the quacks and fraudsters who have played a role in it.

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