Literature Annotations


Brock, Pope
Charlatan: America's Most Dangerous Huckster, the Man Who Pursued Him, and the Age of Flimflam


Genre Biography (324 pp.)
KeywordsAlternative Medicine, Anatomy, Body Self-Image, Communication, Disability, Disease and Health, Doctor-Patient Relationship, History of Medicine, Infertility, Medical Advances, Medical Education, Medical Education, Medical Ethics, Medical Mistakes, Medical Research, Medical Testing, Men's Health, Menopause, Patient Experience, Professionalism, Psycho-social Medicine, Psychosomatic Medicine, Public Health, Sexuality, Surgery, Technology
SummaryJohn Romulus (also known as Richard) Brinkley was a physician (in the diploma-mill sense of the word) who, in 1917, pioneered, in the U.S. at least, the notion of goat testicle transplant. "Transplant" must be understood in the loosest sense of the word since Brinkley simply removed the testicles from young goats and sewed them into the abdominal wall and scrotal tissues - without any attempt to connect blood or nervous tissues of either goat testicles or human  - of men for the alleged purpose of relieving impotence. From 1917 until his downfall at the hands of Morris Fishbein, a medical crusader esconced in the AMA, which organization Dr. Fishbein helped establish as the premier advocate of organized medicine in the U.S., Dr. Brinkley was perhaps the most recognizable physician in the U.S.

He ran for the office of Governor of Kansas in 1930 (losing by technicalities that today would have overturned the results), and established the most powerful radio station in the land, XERA, that promulgated his glandular chicanery all across the continental U.S. As a proponent of such skullduggery, Brinkley was continually in the sights of Dr. Fishbein, whose main reputation nationally was as an exposer of medical fakery. Eventually Fishbein lured Brinkley into a libel trial that resulted, in 1939, in the catastrophic downfall of an immensely talented and wealthy man who spiraled into bankruptcy and death in 3 short years.
CommentaryPope Brock has written an immensely readable account of a swindler of gargantuan proportions. With meticulous reearch and a writing style that can only be described as exuberant panache, Brock has placed Brinkley squarely in the historical context of clinical glandular experimentation, along with Charles-Édouard Brown-Séquard (who proposed the injection of an emulsion of male glands and glandular products), Eugen Steinach (who simply ligated the vas deferens), and Serge Voronoff (who transplanted monkey testes into men), and situated him in the turbulent era of illegitimate nonsense and legitimate research (insulin was discovered in 1921 and testosterone in 1935, lending apparent credence to these hucksters).

Attuned to Brinkley's complex nature and achievements, Brock rightly points out to the reader Brinkley's innovations in American life: the use of radio for mass advertisement, the use of the sound truck and the airplane in political campaigning, the use of music on radio and establishing the basis for later country western music on radio, replacing live music with recordings, broadcasting long distance via telephone, and the foundation of AM radio.

Brock has written one of the liveliest non-fiction books I've ever read. Consider the following quotations: "The notion of priming one's privates came naturally to the Jazz Age" (31); "Ever since man begain to walk upright, he had been obsessed when his penis would not behave likewise" (32); "Three or four hangings a year offered the perfect chance to relieve relatively young men of their testicles without an argument"(35); "After that [the marketing of Listerine in 1934], affliction and marketing were America's hottest couple" (100), and "What was once the salvation of mankind had turned into camp horror. It was the twilight of the glands. In Ireland Yeats [who had had a Steinach operation in 1934] died" (265).

In an astute analysis of modern medicine and two of its protagonists, Brock has correctly identified the doppelgänger nature of Fishbein and Brinkley. As he writes of Fishbein, "Yet he couldn't have done without his enemies, those within the AMA and without. To him and Brinkley both, the unopposed life was not worth living. In that sense they were made for each other" (212).  Likening them to Sherlock Holmes and Professor Moriarty, and Ahab and Moby Dick, Brock has sharply depicted these adversarial yet similar characters in a contest over several hundred pages that at times reads like a thriller pitting two worthy foes against each other: "Just one more step [the antitrust suit against the AMA] in the process military strategists call 'replication' - the principle whereby great opponents over time grow more and more alike - for by now Brinkley and Fishbein had more in common then either would ever have admtted, especially to themselves. Both had egos the size of a weather balloon. Both were workaholic masters of self-promotion, both brilliant and indefatiable talkers tho could hyponotize large gorups. Both, it was said, had photographic memories. Both railed against Roosevelt. And each other" (232).

In the end Fishbein "won", as it were, in a successful libel suit that Brinkley had foolishly brought against Fishbein for the latter's calling him a charlatan. Yet Brinkley fascinates us, as he did Brock and others. As Brock quotes William Allen White: "'What a little tinkering with his character might have done ... [A] little more honesty here, a little more intelligence there ... would have made him a really great leader of men' " (273).

Although Brock writes about Brinkley with a kind of gee-whiz attraction for 273 pages, he ends his book with 7 pages of "correction", placing the charlatan in the ranks of serial killers due to his unprincipled self-aggrandizement and opportunism in a life-long effort to achieve wealth and fame at the expense of the health of hundreds of men and women (the women were prey to his radio advertisements). Indeed, one reads the epilogue with the same sense of disorientation with which one reads the end of  Donald Hall's, "A Hundred Thousand Straightened Nails," published in 1961. In this masterly essay, Hall describes an idiosyncratic and eccentric man who had worked for his father and who had collected straightened nails. For most of the essay one reads with interest as Hall paints the portrait of a man who is nothing if not captivating. Only at the end is the reader alerted to Hall's true sentiments about a man who was apparently intriguing but in reality had led - to Hall's eye - a superficial and shallow life! So too is Brock's reader suddenly brought up short by the reality of Brinkley and his very readable story, which is one of great human tragedy for all concerned.    
PublisherCrown
Edition2008
Place PublishedNew York
Annotated by Ratzan, Richard M.
Date of Entry 04/22/09
Last Revised 05/06/09