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Charlatan: a book review

By Edited Feb 7, 2016 0 0

Charlatan: America's Most Dangerous Huckster, the Man Who Pursued Him, and the Age of Flimflam by Pope Brock is a true story of a doctor before the FDA, Federal Drug Adminstration, and at the early days of the AMA. It is published by Three Rivers Press.

Charlatan is the account of John R. Brinkley, a man from North Carolina who attended medical college for a time and billed himself as a doctor. He traveled and sold miracle tonics until he set up a clinic in Kansas in 1917. A patient came to him who was lethargic and impotent. During the consultation, the patient saw some goats out side and remarked that goat nuts would perk him up. Brinkley had his hook. He replaced the man's testicles with a goat's testicles and was on his way to a profitable practice.


John Brinkley promoted the concept into a million dollar business that had men flocking to his door for the replacement surgery, and buying tonics concocted from goat testicles. Brinkley saw the value of advertising and eventually bought a radio station to promote his cures and ideas.

Brock follows Brinkley's business, and interweaves the story of the man who tried to shut him down. Dr. Morris Fishbein was editor of the "Journal of the American Medical Association," and was after Brinkley. Brinkley had a high percentage of patient deaths after the surgery, and often operated after "happy hour." In spite of this, Brinkley had plenty of patients. U. S. Senators, movie stars and well-known public people were among them. During the depression he made over a million dollars a year selling his tonics alone.

Doctors in Europe were experimenting with animal glands for human rejuvenation. It is not clear how much John Brinkley knew about this research when he started replacement surgery.

Brock follows the story as Dr. Fishbien attempts to close him down; Brinkley has run for governor of Kansas that he almost won, and until Brinkley's death.

Charlatan is a very entertaining and informative book. It gives a good feeling of the time and how such a concept could gain such mass acceptance. Brock points out that the idea seems absurd now, but snake oil salesmen are also prevelant today. My biggest complaint is that it wanders somewhat. I would have liked some more details about the actual transplant procedure. Brinkley didn't leave much information on the operation, and apparently Brock didn't find out many details during his research.



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