I wonder what it is about Memphis that makes our city such a magnet for colorful characters? One of the most intriguing gentlemen in American history wasn’t born here, but he dwelled here for several years in the 1920s, met his wife here and married her at the old Peabody Hotel, and today lies buried in Forest Hill Cemetery.
His name was Dr. John R. Brinkley, and he gained fame around the world as the “Goat Gland Doctor.” He’s also the subject of an amazing book published in 2008 by historian Pope Brock called Charlatan, subtitled “America’s Most Dangerous Huckster, The Man Who Pursued Him, and the Age of Flimflam.”
Okay, I know what you're thinking, but Pope's book is not about any member of the Lauderdale family. I'm talking about Dr. John Brinkley here. Try to pay attention.
Born in North Carolina in 1888, Brinkley earned various medical degrees from quack establishments and set up practice in the little town of Milford, Kansas. One day a farmer visited him to complain about a condition that today we might call erectile disfunction. The good doctor wanted to sell him some worthless potions, but the farmer was skeptical. Looking out the window towards a nearby farmyard, he said, “Too bad I don’t have billy-goat nuts.”
That was the “Eureka” moment for Dr. Brinkley. A few days later, he put the farmer under the knife and inserted a pair of freshly “harvested” goat testicles into the man’s scrotum. Nine months later, the farmer’s wife gave birth to their first child. The boy’s name: Billy. Like the goat.
Accounts of this miracle — a 15-minute operation that could restore lost youth — spread far and wide. Not just by word of mouth, either. Brinkley flooded the mails with self-promotional brochures, and then, in those pre-television days, constructed the most powerful radio station in America. Every night he flooded the airwaves with chats about the benefits of goat glands and the rapidly growing Brinkley Institute of Health. The most skeptical listeners became believers, and life insurance companies actually canceled policies held by Brinkley’s patients, on the grounds that — get this — they were no longer growing old.
As a result, Brinkley became the wealthiest doctor in America, earning $12 million a year in the 1930s, when a general practitioner’s salary was $3,500.
So why is Brock’s book called Charlatan? For the simple reason that the operation did not, and could not possibly, work. Brinkley just stuck pieces of goat testicles in patients without attaching arteries or nerves, so the glands quickly dried up and died. And so did many of his patients, usually from infection. After witnessing one of these operations in 1931, the Kansas Medical Board instantly revoked Brinkley’s license.
That didn’t stop him. He moved his operation — literally — to the little town of Del Rio, Texas. He erected another hospital, started up an even more powerful radio station, and built himself a fabulous mansion, complete with a fountain in the front with “Brinkley” spelled out in red neon — a trick he almost surely stole from the Lauderdales. But what he didn’t plan on was the tenacity of a fellow named Morris Fishbein, the editor of the Journal of the American Medical Association, who made it his life’s work to shut down the quack doctor. I won’t give away the ending of the book, but you can imagine how it all turned out.
Towards the end of his life, Brinkley — for reasons that no one could explain — started referring to Memphis as his hometown. After his death in 1941, he left instructions that he wanted to be buried here, and so he was, beneath a stunning gravestone (shown here) in the southwest corner of Forest Hill Cemetery on South Bellevue. The majestic bronze figure of “Winged Victory” that guards his grave once graced the front lawn of his mansion in Texas.