Article Thumbnail

The Doctor Who Convinced America That a Goat-Ball Transplant Could Cure Impotence

The problem wasn’t just that John R. Brinkley’s science wasn’t sound or that he was more of a grifter than an MD, it was that he kept killing his patients while needlessly inserting goat testicles into their scrotums

April is Testicular Cancer Awareness Month, and we’re grabbing it right by the balls. Every day for the entire month, we will be publishing a new story aimed at getting men to better consider — and cherish — their family jewels in hopes of helping prevent a diagnosis that, if caught early enough, shouldn’t prove fatal. Read everything here.

When it comes to the workings of their junk, men can be pretty sensitive. Over the centuries, all kinds of wacky-ass stuff has been consumed, applied and optimistically rubbed into nether regions in the hope of giving them a bit of a boost. Many a foolish purchase has been made in a bid to restore virility. Otherwise sensible dudes will part with a fortune in order to give a flagging libido a bit of a lift.

To this end, in the late 19th century, when the world of surgery was advancing dramatically, doctors both legitimate and opportunistic began injecting people with serums made from animal’s secretions in a bid to put lead back in their pencils. (Bringing the sex organs from an animal into a human body wasn’t an entirely new idea, of course: Dishes like Jamaican cow cod soup (made from bull’s penis), Chinese ox penis soup and pickled goat’s penis have all been consumed over the years in bids to imbue the consumer with sexual potency.) Doctors experimented transplanting executed prisoners’ testicles onto elderly living prisoners’ bodies, reporting everything from gray hair turning black again to reversed senility. One doctor transplanted 12 testicles from cadavers onto his own ribs and another into his scrotum and was by all accounts delighted with the results, the happiest 15-testicled man in the world.

At the same time that genuine physicians were making breakthroughs, a golden age of quackery began, with fast-talking traveling showmen, sometimes known as snake-oil salesmen, peddling nonsense to crowds throughout the U.S. Questionable institutions popped up from which one could acquire a dodgy doctorate incredibly easily, and the sheer vastness of the country meant it was easy enough to get what you could and skip town.

One man, John R. Brinkley, took it to new extremes, however. Brinkley ran several scams early on in his bullshit-fueled career, like injecting patients’ asses with completely inert colored water — a steal at just $25 (more than $600 in modern money) — with the promise it was German electronic medicine guaranteed to rejuvenate. However, none were more notorious (or financially successful) than his scheme of transplanting goat testicles into the scrotums of men suffering from impotence, where they would be, as he put it, “humanized,” rejuvenating and reinvigorating for the patient. 

This endeavor began in 1917, when Brinkley became the town doctor in Milford, Kansas. A 46-year-old farmer came to him complaining of having “no pep,” lamenting offhand that he didn’t have “billy-goat nuts.” This, according to a biography Brinkley himself commissioned at the height of his fame, led to a serendipitous moment, a realization he was “gifted beyond the run of doctors.” 

Brinkley began charging $750 for a goat-gland transplant, equivalent to around $16,500 today. Patients mortgaged their homes, begged, borrowed and stole. “A man is as old as his glands,” Brinkley would proclaim, while warning his patients that the procedure only had a 95-percent success rate, and worked less well on stupid people.

Despite the science behind his work being entirely unsound — and frequently being drunk when he operated — he had a great flair for marketing and became wealthy and famous. In fact, he became known as “the Milford Messiah,” building a church with his own name on it (along with, begrudgingly, God’s and Jesus’) and had goats delivered to his surgery 40 at a time for patients to choose from. He was incredibly media-savvy, pushing his operation through newspapers as a cure for basically everything — when Billy, “the first goat-gland baby” was born, it was big news.

Author Pope Brock’s excellent biography of Brinkley, Charlatan: America’s Most Dangerous Huckster, the Man Who Pursued Him and the Age of Flimflam, describes his methods: “Sometimes he slivered the animal gland like a clove of garlic and put the pieces in the patient. Sometimes he joined the smaller testicle to the larger, a process he likened to ‘embedding a marble in an apple.’ Sometimes the operation was no more complex than tossing a Christmas present into a bag.”

This wasn’t a case of a well-meaning man doing his best but not quite cutting the mustard — Brinkley was a true, true bastard. Again, he was frequently drunk when performing surgery, and from early on in his career, he’d spontaneously increase the price of a procedure. On one occasion, after drunkenly removing a 15-year-old’s appendix, he threatened to shoot her brothers unless he was paid an extra hundred dollars. He smashed a neighbor’s car with an axe, had a habit of biting people and once threatened to cut all his staff’s throats. Dissatisfied customers who threatened legal action found themselves visited by large men in the night eager to dissuade them from continuing by whatever means necessary. 

Medically, what was going on was a mixture of nothing and the placebo effect. The best-case scenario for a patient in real terms was a boost in confidence and a healthily healed wound; the worst-case was horrendous. Dozens of patients died, both during surgeries and after them. Regarding the former, at least 42 people died on Brinkley’s operating table. As Brock writes, “though perhaps not the worst serial killer in American history, ranked by body count alone he is at least a finalist for the crown.”

He was also, by accident as much as by design, a pioneer. He launched a radio station (KFKB), broadcasting self-aggrandizing sermons and answering listeners’ medical questions for hours every day, essentially building a self-sustaining bullshit-based empire that advertising presented as fact. A lot of his medical answers, funnily enough, involved purchasing Brinkley-endorsed medicines from Brinkley-endorsed pharmacies. KFKB became the most popular radio station in the country. The more Brinkley’s work was criticized by the establishment — the American Medical Association and so on — the more seriously his devotees took him. When his radio station was shut down, he broadcasted from Mexico. He made millions preying on what the New York Times later called “the stupid, the deluded and the pathetically hopeful,” and attempted to corral his fame into a political career, only narrowly losing out on the Kansas governor’s seat.

Reading Brock’s book in 2022, it’s hard not to be struck by parallels with the age of COVID disinformation — bullshit-based media networks confirming one another’s nonsense while treating criticism by the mainstream as somehow proof of validity, notoriety being missold as credibility. We have very possibly learned nothing in 100 years.

Eventually, everything caught up with Brinkley. Morris Fishbein, editor of the Journal of the American Medical Association, spent years pursuing him and published a huge takedown, leading to Brinkley no longer being allowed to practice medicine. When Brinkley sued him for libel, the jury concluded that in fact, Brinkley had not a leg to stand on (actually, he lost a leg for real around this time as well) and “should be considered a charlatan and a quack in the ordinary, well-understood meaning of those words.” This meant a huge amount of people wronged by Brinkley over the years were now in a much stronger position to sue, and many did so. Tax evasion charges and mail fraud charges followed, and Brinkley died penniless awaiting trial. Some of the rules and regulations that were put in place specifically to stop him are still enforced today.

There will always be scammers, and the male ego is so fragile when it comes to virility that it will always provide a particularly inviting target for those eager to make a few bucks. Few things will make someone part with their cash quicker than the promise of a better ding-dong. And until it all came crashing down, Brinkley was a uniquely American success story, a rags-to-riches tale of making money at any cost, turning a loopy idea into fame and fortune, masking ineptitude with bullshit. In many ways, he lived the American Dream: It was just the dream of an amoral, scrotum-mangling asshole. 

And goddamnit, couldn’t somebody think of the goats?