Doc Goat-Gland in the wild west

You may have heard of Dr. John Brinkley, but probably not. Dr. Morris Fishbein is even less well known. But these were two of the titans of 20th century medicine, one a fraud, the other a fraud-hunter.

Brinkley’s story is far more colourful, from which you can quickly deduce that he was the crook in this tale. Born in 1885, he started his career selling patent medicines. He then spent some time studying at a college in Chicago that specialized in something called “eclectic medicine.” He finally simply bought a diploma from a shady college in Kansas City, and set up his practice.

By chance, he stumbled onto an insane and insanely profitable scheme – implanting goat testicles into men to cure impotence. In the early 1920s, he turned this into a gigantic business, with a clinic employing numerous doctors. He charged $750 an operation when a Model T Ford cost $260.

Did his surgery work? Well, no, unless you count the placebo effect.

Brinkley broadened his market, advertising his surgery for every medical issue, from flatulence to cancer. He could have bathed in money. 

Fishbein, born 1889, was an actual doctor, who also studied in Chicago, though at a more reputable school. Instead of practising, he spent most of his career as the editor of the Journal of the American Medical Association, and campaigning for safe medical equipment and against quackery. Quackery like the mighty empire of nuttiness Goat-Gland Brinkley was building in Kansas.

From the start, the AMA was opposed to Brinkly. The turn of the century was one of the major turning points for medicine – up until the mid- to late-1800s, medicine was as much art and craft as science, and it wasn’t much better than folk remedies. Sometimes, it was worse. By the end of the century, medicine was growing up, coming to rely on science more and more, and formalizing itself as a profession.

Brinkley had one foot in the old school of the half-trained country doctor, and another in pure fraud. He was everything the AMA hated. Fishbein and his journal railed against Brinkley, and called for his medical licence to be pulled.

Brinkley dodged the first few attempts to stop him practising, and he ramped up his own promotional efforts. In 1923, he started his own radio station, featuring music, medical advice (to use his branded medications, naturally), and advertising. He would later switch to a massive transmitter in Mexico to reach the entire U.S. southwest.

Finally, in 1930 enough complaints (including claims of wrongful death and a lot of his former patients turning up sick to see other doctors) convinced Kansas to yank his licence. Brinkley upped the ante by running for governor, as a write-in candidate. He almost won, splitting the field three ways between himself and the two major party candidates.

Brinkley tried again in 1932 and again came close, but shortly after he moved on to Texas. He was piling up more cash there in 1938 when Fishbein exposed Brinkley’s shady credentials and called him a “charlatan,” in print.

Brinkley sued. He lost.

In 1939, having been openly dubbed a charlatan and a quack by a Texas jury, Fishbein was deluged in lawsuits claiming numerous medical blunders.

He died in 1942, flat broke, facing mail fraud charges, and having already had multiple heart attacks and one leg amputated.

Fishbein would live to the ripe old age of 87. Today, he’s a minor icon among medical skeptics, and a figure of horror among many practitioners of modern quackery.

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