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On the track of a successful quack

Email|Print|Single Page| Text size + By Ralph Ranalli
Globe Staff / July 28, 2008

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

By Pope Brock
Crown, 310 pp., $24.95

In the face of despair, hope sells. And throughout history, there has perhaps been no more reliable source of despair and frustration than the loins of the human male.

It's how Viagra became one of the fastest-selling drugs in US history, and why the world's top pharmaceutical companies are slugging it out for a share of the prescription erectile dysfunction cure market, which is worth billions of dollars in the United States alone.

As it happens, 80 years ago there were also fortunes to be had in the promise of renewed human virility, an era in which author Pope Brock says America conducted a "great Maypole dance around the human gland." In his new book, "Charlatan: America's Most Dangerous Huckster, the Man Who Pursued Him, and the Age of Flimflam," Brock tells the story of John R. Brinkley, the most prolific, innovative - and dangerous - huckster in an age rife with them.

Although today it seems unthinkable, Brinkley made a fortune transplanting goat testicles - euphemistically referred to as "glands" - into the nether regions of men desperate to regain their lost virility.

In his well-researched and engaging book, Brock explains how, like any good quack, Brinkley was much more interested in the symbolism of the goat than its medicinal usefulness. During the 1920s, America was still well-connected to its agrarian roots and, among farm animals, goats are known for being particularly randy.

In "Charlatan," Brock traces the rise of Brinkley from an apprentice at tent revival medicine shows to a struggling solo quack with a diploma mill degree to a flimflam superstar after the development of his goat-gland operation.

It also bears mentioning that the book tells the story of Morris Fishbein, the era's foremost quackbuster, who pursued Brinkley for the American Medical Association. Pity poor Fishbein, though. His plain-vanilla character pales in proximity to Brinkley's audacity, flamboyance, and genius for grift.

Increasingly hounded by American regulators, Brinkley moved to Texas and built the first so-called "border blaster" - a radio station based just across the Rio Grande in Mexico that would eventually boast a million-watt transmitter, the most powerful in the world. In seeking to sell his services and program the station, Brinkley gets credit from Brock for bothinventing the infomercial and introducing country and western music and the blues to a national audience. When Brinkley runs for governor of Kansas, he employs innovative public relations techniques still used in modern campaigns.

He even had a sense of humor. As he was building his goat-gland business in Milford, Kan., the uber-quack sponsored a local Little League team he dubbed the "Brinkley Goats."

Indeed, if the book has a shortcoming, it is that in his fascination with Brinkley's innovations and flamboyance, Brock fails to counterbalance the story with enough information about the maimings, cripplings, and deaths that resulted from his operations, and later, the patent medicines he hawked on the radio. While they are not ignored, they are not as central to the story as perhaps they should have been. Still, Brock's work made me think; particularly about which of today's modern medical miracles will be exposed as tomorrow's medical disasters. From goat glands to thalidomide to fen-phen, from tent shows to infomercials and e-mail spam; quackery may have had its golden age, but it certainly isn't gone.

Ralph Ranalli is a staff writer and the author of "Deadly Alliance: The FBI's Secret Partnership with the Mob."

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