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Bad Medicine

How a Midwest con man swindled a pre-Viagra nation

 

After he stumbled upon a brazen con man named John R. Brinkley on the Internet, the New York-based journalist Pope Brock knew he had a story. Brinkley, a Kansas-based “doctor,” had spent much of the 1920s and ’30s peddling virility to Americans in an unlikely package: goat testicles. Over two decades, Brinkley’s implants killed or maimed dozens of people, a record that puts him in company with some of the worst serial killers in U.S. history.

“He was a genius of self-promotion,” says Brock, a former staff writer at GQ and contributor to the London Sunday Times Magazine; his book about Brinkley, Charlatan (Crown, $24.95), comes out in February. “Not only did people sign up for his services, but he ran for governor of Kansas. He really did have this weird Christlike thing going. A lot
of people bought into it. He did, too.”

The story’s surprising hero is the man who ultimately put Brinkley out of business: Morris Fishbein, a Chicagoan, who was the influential editor of the Journal of the American Medical Association. Fishbein’s pursuit of Brinkley and other scam artists ultimately led to tighter licensing standards for doctors and the growth of the role of the AMA. His tenacity also influenced literature: Fishbein, a prolific writer himself, encouraged Sinclair Lewis to pen a book about a heroic bacteriologist. Arrowsmith won the Pulitzer Prize in 1926.

As Brock himself points out, Brinkley’s censure did little to curb the American mania for any tonic or gizmo that promises immortality or better sex. “The more science advances,” he says, “the more plausible the crap becomes.”


 

Photogrpah: Blackbox Studios, Inc.

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