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A 1920s-era goat gland implantation surgery, Science History Images/Alamy Stock Photos)

John R. Brinkley Got Rich on Glandular Gullibility

By Peter Carlson
December 018 • American History magazine

Quack duped dozens of men into having billy goat testes implantations

America’s most outrageous quack, Dr. John R. Brinkley, never finished medical school but made millions exploiting his one insight: When it comes to their gonads, men are morons.

For centuries, men robbed by age of lead in their personal pencils had been buying potions said to jump-start Mister Johnson. In 1917, Brinkley premiered a most audacious aphrodisiac scam—transplanting goat testicles into the scrota of men chasing the vigor of youth. The scheme made Brinkley rich and famous—and damn near got him elected governor of Kansas.

Born in 1885 in tiny Beta, North Carolina, Brinkley longed for greatness. At 20, he married a local girl and they joined a traveling medicine show. The dough they collected singing, dancing, and peddling a bogus cure-all

Dr. John R. Brinkley was early to adopt radio to promote extremely sketchy surgical methods.(Bettmann/Getty Images)

nspired Brinkley in 1908 to enroll in Chicago’s Bennett Eclectic Medical College, an unaccredited institution, part of a popular 19th-century fad steeped in plant-based treatment. Soon he dropped out, ditched the wife and kids, and, drinking heavily, hit the road.

He surfaced in Greenville, South Carolina, in 1913, billing himself as an “electro-medic” doctor. His specialty was charging impotent fellows $25 to inject colored water into their buttocks. Fearing dissatisfied customers, he fled to Memphis, where he met and four days later married Wife No. 2. Arrested for passing bad checks and practicing medicine without a license, Brinkley was saved from jail when his new father-in-law covered the bounced checks. Brinkley promptly enrolled at Eclectic Medical University of Kansas City, which issued a diploma to anyone willing to pay $100.

In 1917, Dr. Brinkley set up shop in little Milford, Kansas. Patient Bill Stittsworth, a farmer, complained of a listless libido, joking that he wished he were as randy as his billy goats. Brinkley persuaded Stittsworth to let him insert a baby goat’s testicles into his scrotum alongside the original equipment. Two weeks later, Stittsworth returned all smiles, probably thanks to the placebo effect. Brinkley’s appointment book filled with men demanding goat glands. Suddenly a surgeon, he traveled to Chicago to study that discipline. He failed the course but told his professor,
“I have a scheme up my sleeve and the whole world will hear of it.” Soon Brinkley was doing 50 goat surgeries a month—at $750 per—and sponsoring a Little League team, the Brinkley Goats. Touring Los Angeles and Chicago, he revitalized an editor, a judge, an alderman, and other notables. He began offering infertile women goat-ovary implants but found far fewer female suckers.

In 1923, Brinkley established radio station KFKB in Milford and began touting his treatments on the air. “Note the difference between the stallion and the gelding,” he intoned. “The former stands erect, neck arched, mane flowing, champing the bit, stamping the ground, seeking the female, while the gelding stands around half-asleep, cowardly, listless…”

Through the 1920s, hundreds of listeners wrote Brinkley seeking medical advice, leading to another scam: patent medicines labeled not with names but numbers. After reading a listener’s letter on the air, the pseudo-doctor would say, “My advice is No. 61 and stay on it for about ten years.” Joy juice sales hit $10,000 a week.

Brinkley’s house of goat gonads inevitably collapsed. In June 1930, the Federal Radio Commission revoked KFKB’s broadcast license. That September, the Kansas medical board yanked his license to practice medicine, citing “gross immorality and unprofessional conduct.” Three days later, Brinkley announced his candidacy for the governorship. Under Kansas law, the governor appointed the medical board and Brinkley wanted his license back.

Newspaper story touts the birth of a baby born after his father had goat gland surgery. (Library of Congress)

He was too late to get his name on the ballot, so he ran as a write-in candidate.

Barnstorming Kansas in his own plane, Brinkley harangued hordes drawn to see the radio star. Playing the populist card like other demagogues of the day, he promised old-age pensions and lower taxes and sold himself as a saintly martyr. “The men in power wanted to do away with Jesus before the common people woke up!” he’d bark. “Are you awake here?” In Depression-ravaged Kansas, Brinkley’s bunkum went over well. Terrified of a Brinkley win, the state attorney general ruled that the doctor’s write-in votes had to read “J.R. Brinkley”; other spellings voided votes. Officials needed 12 days to finish the tally. Democrat Harry Woodring won with 217,171 votes. Brinkley came in third with 183,278, but even Woodring admitted that if misspelled ballots had counted, the doctor would have won.

Irate, Brinkley relocated to dusty Del Rio, Texas, on the Mexican border. He opened a clinic, resumed his  goat-gland work, and added equally sketchy prostate surgeries. To outfox federal radio regulators, he bought Mexican station XER, pumped its power to a million watts, and returned to the air. A huge radio tower propelled his hokum as far as Alaska. Brinkley loved yakking on the radio, ballyhooing his operations, praising Jesus, and delivering right-wing diatribes. Between monologues, the station played country music, blanketing the hemisphere with a genre once restricted to the Appalachian Mountains.

Brinkley got richer. He built a palatial mansion. He bought three yachts. In 1938, however, Morris Fishbein, editor of the Journal of the American Medical Association, published a devastating exposé on the doctor. Documenting instances in which goat-gland surgery killed or maimed patients, Fishbein called Brinkley “a blatant quack.”

Brinkley sued for libel, triggering a trial that was pure tabloid fodder. Physicians testified that Brinkley’s goat-gland and prostate operations were frauds and that “medicines” he hawked were mostly water and dye. The most damaging witness was Brinkley himself. He couldn’t explain how his nostrums worked, and his tales of surgery were terrifying. Sometimes he implanted goat glands whole, sometimes slices. Sometimes he sewed animal parts into a patient’s abdominal muscles, sometimes his scrotum. He might hollow out a man’s testicles and sew goat glands inside. Grossed-out jurors ruled for Fishbein, finding that Brinkley “should be considered a charlatan and quack.” Suits bankrupted Brinkley and ended his career. He died of a heart attack in 1942.

Brinkley’s legacy includes another facet of the American libido. In the 1950s, XER, that high-wattage music station, hired disk jockey Robert Weston Smith. Smith called himself “Wolfman Jack” and played a sexy new sound that blended country, pop, and electric blues. It was called rock ’n’ roll. Unlike goat-gland transplants, it’s still quite popular.

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