'Charlatan' profiles goat gland huckster, medical scams through history

Posted: Friday, February 01, 2008

"Charlatan" (Crown Publishing Group, 336 pages, $24.95), by Pope Brock

Lynda Shenkman Curtis / Crown Publishing Group/Random House
Lynda Shenkman Curtis / Crown Publishing Group/Random House

Goat testicles to restore virility. An electric hat that grows hair. Healing blue light from a "quartz ray" bulb.

If you can't believe people could fall for such nonsense, you might want to peek inside your own medicine chest. Unproven treatments and remedies sold through testimonials rather than science are popular today, as they were in the 1920s when this book is set.

"Charlatan" is a biography of "Dr." John R. Brinkley, a genius huckster who won fame and fortune implanting goat testicles in desperate Kansas ranchers and others seeking a fountain of youth. But it's also a history of quackery and Americans' long gullibility for it.

The book opens with members of the state medical board gathered around Brinkley as he harvests the goat glands to perform his storied surgery. Brock is gifted at description, putting the reader right in the room with the "trembling animal ... hoofs clattering" on one table, and the nervous mail carrier strapped to another, as Brinkley's wife swabs the animal with Mercurochrome.

From there, Brock takes us back to Brinkley's dirt-poor roots, to traveling medicine man shows, and on a tour of flimflam by Brinkley and fellow grifters around the world. Brinkley's genius extended into political campaigning, radio marketing and advertising tactics commonly used today. He even gave an early boost to country music.

The book sags a tad in spots where story takes a back seat to history. But it is meticulously researched, which is a blessing and occasionally a curse. A more novellike tome may have resulted if Brock had focused more tightly on the central story of Brinkley and the man who long pursued him - quackbuster Morris Fishbein, editor of the Journal of the American Medical Association. Forays into the Scopes monkey trial and Nazi experiments distract from this drama.

Still, the detail is fascinating, and the author gets inside the skull of quack and quackee. For example, he details how Brinkley could play human nature, asking questions about universal experiences - are you ever thirsty? tired? - that made him appear omniscient to people ripe for placebo-effect exploitation.

It's a sad truth that people sometimes do not demand facts and proof when it comes to medicine. In America, "medical fraud has always been the king of cons," Brock writes. "Nothing shows reason the door like cures for things."

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