John Romulus Brinkley wasn't a real doctor, but he played one on the
radio. His father served as a competent and respected country doctor
in the mountains of western North Carolina, but John left home with
a strong desire to be something more than that. He expected to someday
see his name listed on the same page as Pasteur, Currie and Hippocrates-at
the top of the list.
Though he never finished school in North Carolina, Brinkley put himself
through a series of diploma mills such as the Bennett Eclectic Medical
School in Chicago, the National University of Arts and Sciences in
St. Louis and the Eclectic Medical University in Kansas City, which
granted him a diploma that allowed him to acquire a medical license
in Arkansas that was also recognized in Tennessee, Missouri, Connecticut
Brinkley stumbled onto his big idea after Swift and Company in Kansas
City hired him to stitch up animal cuts, and he began asking people
at the plant to name the healthiest animal slaughtered there. The
nearly unanimous answer? Goats. He took the consensus with him to
the tiny hamlet of Milford, Kansas, where he helped see the town through
a nasty flu epidemic, all the while maintaining an easy, down-home
manner that his patients trusted.
A conversation with one of those patients, a middle-aged farmer, had
long-term consequences for both men. The farmer told the doc he was
"sexually weak" and unable to sire any more children. Brinkley nodded
in sympathy and told the farmer about previous cases he'd treated
with "serums, medicines and electricity" to no avail. The conversation
drifted to this and that but soon returned to the farmer's sexual
woes. Brinkley told him, "You wouldn't have any trouble if you had
a pair of those buck glands in you."
According to Brinkley's official biography, which he financed, the
farmer insisted that Brinkley operate on him right away and fix him
up with a pair of those goat glands. He did. Less than a year later,
the farmer's wife gave birth to a healthy baby boy. The couple, naturally,
named him Billy. Billy later told a Kansas City newspaper that Brinkley
promised to pay his father a handsome sum for his cooperation.
Regardless of how it happened, that first operation led to many more.
With the help of a publicist, Brinkley's miracle treatment for sagging
libidos turned him and his remedies into hot properties. Brinkley
built the first radio station in Kansas, KFRB, and broadcast country
music, fundamentalist preaching and a promise to put some lead in
the ol' pencil. His message swept the region and made Brinkley richer
than any country doctor should ever expect to be.
But there was a problem. The American Medical Association looked askance
at Brinkley's claims and convinced the Kansas State Medical Board
to revoke his medical license and the Federal Radio Commission to
take him off the airwaves.
Brinkley ran for governor of Kansas and almost won, but when he didn't
he packed up and moved to Del
Rio, Texas, and started a radio station, XERA, just across the
Mexican border in Villa Acuna, Mexico, where the U.S. government couldn't
mess with him. XERA utilized transmitters powerful enough to blast
music and advertising all across America with most of the promotions
devoted to Brinkley's clinic and its sundry patented potions, including
a "commercial glandular preparation" that made the expensive surgery
Estimates of Brinkley's earnings between 1933 and 1938, during the
heart of the Great Depression, are in the $12 million range. But it
didn't last. He lost a libel suit against the American Medical Association
that opened the door to dozens of other lawsuits and loads of bad
publicity. The IRS filed against him for back taxes, and the Mexican
government shut down his radio station. He was bankrupt by 1941, dead
a year later.