This Month in North Carolina History
Two torn and fading paperbacks in the vault of the North Carolina Collection describing his medical practice are relics of the life and times of John R. Brinkley who left his birthplace in the hills of North Carolina and, as the famous or infamous “Goat Gland Doctor,” rose from poverty to great wealth and was well on his way back to poverty again when he died in 1942.
Brinkley was born 8 July 1885, the illegitimate son of John Richard Brinkley and Sarah Candace (Sally) Burnett in Beta, Jackson County, North Carolina. His mother gave him the middle name Romulus, but he later changed it to Richard. Brinkley’s father, a so-called “mountain doctor,” had no formal training but had “read” medicine in the office of another physician before setting up on his own.
Brinkley did well in the local schools, demonstrating a quick mind and a prodigious memory. He left school at 16 and became a telegrapher, first for the railroad and then for Western Union. Although his job paid relatively well, Brinkley wanted to become a physician and in 1907 enrolled in Bennett Medical College in Chicago, which he attended for three years. Ultimately he graduated from the Eclectic Medical University of Kansas City in 1915.
Forced to drop out of medical school several times to support his family, Brinkley obtained student medical licenses and often operated on the wild side of medicine. In an episode in Greenville, South Carolina, Brinkley and his partner injected patients with colored water, claiming that it was a miraculous cure for venereal disease. Finally, with his degree from the Eclectic Medical University in hand, Dr. Brinkley set up practice in Milford, Kansas.
It was in Milford that Brinkley hit the mother lode. According to Brinkley, a local farmer, suffering from failing virility asked the doctor to implant in him a portion of the “sex gland” of a male goat. Brinkley obliged and the farmer claimed that his life was transformed. Brinkley publicized the operation and testimonials to its beneficial results widely, and soon patients were lining up for the goat gland transplant.
Brinkley realized the potential of radio to advertise his practice, and in 1923 he began operating station KFKB in Milford, broadcasting all over the midwest. Brinkley did regular programs of medical advice and, through arrangements with pharmacies in the region, began prescribing medicine over the radio.
By the end of the 1920s Brinkley had become famous and wealthy. He had also made enemies. The American Medical Association was investigating him for malpractice. The Kansas City Star had published a series of articles accusing him of fraud, and the newly formed Federal Radio Commission was looking into his broadcasting practices. As a result of all this Brinkley lost his license to practice medicine in Kansas in 1929 and the FRC closed down his radio station in 1930.
During his involuntary retirement from medicine Brinkley turned to politics, and between 1930 and 1934 he ran three times for the governorship of Kansas. In his best showing he polled 30.6 percent of the total vote.
In 1934 Brinkley returned to medicine. He obtained a medical license in Texas and set up a practice and ultimately a hospital in Del Rio on the Rio Grande. Again he was a phenomenal success, making more than twelve million dollars between 1934 and 1938 on his goat gland surgery alone. He also opened a radio station just over the river in Mexico which broadcast all the way to Canada. The doctor enjoyed his wealth, whether relaxing in his mansion in Del Rio or traveling extensively with his family, often in his luxuriously appointed private airplane or on his ocean-going yacht, the Dr. Brinkley III.
Brinkley’s success, however, attracted the attention of his old enemies the American Medical Association and the Federal Communications Commission (successor to the FRC) and brought him a new opponent in the form of the Internal Revenue Service. In 1938 Brinkley lost a splashy libel suit against the AMA which left him branded as a quack. The FCC closed down his Mexican radio station, and Brinkley found himself being investigated by the IRS for non-payment of taxes and by the Post Office for mail fraud. In failing health, Brinkley declared bankruptcy in 1941 and died of cancer in May 1942.
The accompanying illustration, taken from a pamphlet advertising the doctor’s procedures and services, shows the Brinkley hospital in Del Rio. The building is actually the Roswell Hotel. The pamphlet says that the “Brinkley operation is so mild that our patients are guests in the hotel, mixing and mingling with traveling public…”
R. Alton Lee. The Bizarre Careers of John R. Brinkley. Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 2002.
Francis W. Schruben. “The Wizard of Milford: Dr. J. R. Brinkley and Brinkleyism.” Kansas History, 14:4 (Winter 1991-1992).
Clement Wood. The Life of a Man: A Biography of John R. Brinkley. Kansas City: Goshorn Publishing, 1934.
John Richard Brinkley. Dr. Brinkley’s Doctor Book. Del Rio, Texas, ca. 1933.