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The king of quacks

America's greatest swindler and the man who nailed him


Americans have always had a thing for hucksters and con artists, so they should love this book about the King Daddy of all charlatans, Dr. John R. Brinkley, a brilliant, egomaniacal surgeon who scammed untold thousands of patients and wound up enormously wealthy during the 1920s and '30s -- the time author Pope Brock calls "the age of flimflam."

Brock, a spirited, engaging writer with a sly sense of humor, has fun telling the nearly unbelievable story of Brinkley's rise and fall, as well as the tale of the dedicated AMA crusader who dogged the deceitful doc for two decades. Readers get a well-researched, captivating, and often comical look at the American public's penchant for panaceas and cure-alls, especially during the era when an agricultural nation of rubes was waking up to the modern world.

Leading those rubes by the nose was Dr. John R. Brinkley. Born in the North Carolina mountains, he left the state to fulfill his dreams of fame and fortune, and soon latched on to the era's fascination with all things medical, mechanical or electrical. At the time, regulation of the medical profession was loose at best, and doctors both real and sham sprang up like weeds, peddling an array of medical gizmos designed to cure headaches, depression, low energy, "female problems," and our own era's favorite malady, erectile dysfunction.

After a disastrous "electro-medic" start-up operation in Greenville, S.C., Brinkley moved to Kansas, where medical licenses were handed out like candy. He opened a new, luxurious, 16-room clinic in Milford, Kan., that specialized in the medical procedure that would make his reputation and fortune: goat-gland surgery.

Brinkley, with his flawless knack for showmanship, proclaimed that he could restore a man's "manly powers" by taking the testicles of a goat and grafting them onto the gonads of any suffering, less-than-virile male. Over the course of more than a decade, Brinkley and his associates performed thousands upon thousands of such surgeries, at exorbitant cost to patients (cash only, upfront). Many men swore by Brinkley's remedy, others were butchered beyond recovery, and untold hundreds died quietly, unwilling to admit they'd been hoodwinked.

Not content with making money hand over fist from goat testicles, Brinkley also started a radio station on which he talked to listeners about life and the Bible, and read letters from listeners to whom he would recommend various combinations of drugs -- which he sold, naturally, at five times their normal cost. No one knows how many people Brinkley helped, or killed, through his radio prescriptions, but two things are known: He made more money than God, and he revolutionized radio in America by revealing its potential as a powerful advertising medium. Yes, you have Brinkley to thank for the glut of radio ads we're inundated with today.

While Brinkley was operating on sacs and raking in sacks of money from his operations, the American Medical Association was a weak, fledgling organization striving for respect. Morris Fishbein, an editor of the Journal of the American Medical Association, became the AMA's "quackbuster," and naturally gravitated to the famous goat-gland radio doctor. Fishbein soon dedicated himself, and the AMA, to putting Brinkley out of business.

In 1930, Fishbein finally persuaded Kansas to revoke Brinkley's medical license, but the humiliation only inspired the doctor further. Portraying himself as an aggrieved everyman, Brinkley ran for governor of Kansas, revolutionizing American political campaigning by introducing the tactic of barnstorming via airplane from rally to rally. Brinkley essentially won the governorship, but horrified officials found a way to cheat him out of the victory.

Fed up and running out of options, Brinkley had a brainstorm. He moved his entire operation just over the border from Del Rio, Texas, and promoted it relentlessly -- along with new remedies and cures -- on XER, his new, astonishingly powerful AM radio station. U.S. stations were limited to 50,000 watts, but Mexico had no such rules, and XER blasted across the Western Hemisphere with up to a million watts. The signal was so powerful, sparks and green arcs danced up and down the guy-wires at night like something out of Frankenstein, and people who lived within five miles of the station heard it in their tooth fillings, clotheslines and car fenders. As an unexpected bonus, Brinkley's "border buster" radio station helped change American music by broadcasting "hillbilly" music and the blues, exposing listeners outside the South to those genres for the first time. As music historians will tell you, increased national exposure to country and the blues was the first baby step in the development of rock 'n' roll.

In the end, Fishbein finally snagged Brinkley -- read the book to find out how -- and his victory was one of the events that gave the AMA its image of respectability. Charlatan is a fast, funny and fascinating read that begs to be made into a movie. It's an early contender for most entertaining non-fiction book of the year, and it's hard to imagine what book could come along to take away the prize.

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