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 by Pope Brock called Charlatan, subtitled “America’s Most Dangerous Huckster, The Man Who Pursued Him, and the Age of Flimflam.”
Born in Kansas 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 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.
Here’s the grave of the Goat Gland Doctor. Very impressive, I must say.
15 Responses to “The Grave of the Goat Gland Doctor”:
1. Ken Caudill, on June 8th, 2008 at 12:11 pm said: "Those pesky scientific types do get in the way."
2. Mary Ann Brown, on June 15th, 2008 at 5:14 pm said: "First of all, JRB was not born in Kansas, but rather in Beta, N.C. His wife, Minnie Telitha Jones was born and raised near Memphis which might explain the choice of burial locations. Secondly, the goat gland operation might very well have had temporary positive results—a small amount of testosterone could have been initially released and secondly, and more importantly, psychologically it was often deemed successful!
I do not know for a fact, but I believe that the Brinkleys had clean hospitals, as it was noted in their brochures about their attention to this important detail. Remember also, the times. And, does anyone ever wonder just how long an old man who has “lost his pep” and underwent a Brinkley operation was expected to live anyway (despite what insurance companies thought) — in the 20s and 30s!
Finally, I don’t believe he was any different than some of the quacks we have in our midst today. But, since he was making so much money, many in the medical field were, no doubt, envious.
3. Vance, on June 15th, 2008 at 10:54 pm said: "You’re quite right about “Doctor” Brinkley being born in North Carolina instead of Kansas. My mistake. But I don’t think the author of “Charlatan” would agree that Brinkley’s so-called hospitals were completely sanitary. As he noted in his book, the Kansas Medical Board yanked Brinkley’s license within 24 hours of watching just one of his goat-gland operations, and the author reported one instance where a ragged hole in a patient’s scrotum (no doubt the result of Brinkley’s propensity for operating while he was drunk) was patched with a piece of rubber torn from the sole of a shoe. Was he any different from all the other quacks in our midst, then and now? Maybe not? But was he run out of business because the editor of JAMA (and other doctors) were jealous of him? Well, read Charlatan and then decide."
4. deb, on June 19th, 2008 at 10:01 am said: "Hi Vance…I gotta go get that book. I agree that even in our so called modern age, much quackery abounds, and it is interesting to note what was popular among our contemporaries."
5. Harry Weiss, on June 19th, 2008 at 9:33 pm said: "I was in the process of buying the Brinkley mansion and the contents from Mini Brinkley when John Brinkley, her only son, committed suicide with a pistol. He called his mother and asked her if she wanted to hear him shoot himself. I met quite a few men whose father had the operation. I bought several oriental rugs, two large marble statues, and stemware with Dr. Brinkley’s name on them with the yacht flag. John Brinkley had one daughter and never had employment. He had a law degree and was a CPA. He lived in a shack by a railroad track in Del Rio. Mini Brinkley lived with her granddaughter in two small rooms in the mansion. Mini never moved into the main part of the very large mansion. For a short time I owned a sterling silver plane given to Dr. Brinkley by Howard Hughes. The once-beautiful mansion was in a bad state of repair in the mid 1970s. One amazing thing was the Brinkley orchard. Dr. Brinkley had different trees growing out of another kind of tree. Like a Maple tree growing out of an oak tree. I didn’t think this was possible. I spent many months in Del Rio and learned a great deal about Dr. Brinkley
6. Ken Love, on June 25th, 2008 at 7:42 pm said: "I find Mr. Brinkley to be an interesting character. My Grandfather wrote about his dealings with him back when he was in the 1st Cavalry. He penned this down is personal memoirs before passing on several years ago… (Sorry for his bad grammar)….
…”As soon as I got out of the stockade we were having trouble on the Mexican border with cattle rustlers. Well we got that settled down we had to make a fast rescue of Mexico to rescue a Dr John Brinkley, a citizen of the USA. This Dr. Brinkley was forced to leave Del Rio Texas and move his radio station to Villa Acuña, Coahuila Mexico. While there he got in trouble with the residents of Villa Acuña, Coahuila so we were forced to cross the Rio Grande River. I got him back to the USA. We kicked in the door of the radio station amid Mexicans with clubs and pitchforks and knives. My horse was next to the door of the radio station and Dr Brinkley was inside. I put him aboard my horse and I made a jump to get on my horse also, I missed him and the Calvary troop (had) gone for the river and I ran for the river and someone let loose with a gun and I was shot in the leg. But I did get back across the river.” Hope you find that morsel interesting." - Ken
7. Ken Warner, on July 13th, 2008 at 1:07 am said: "In my boredom tonight, my thoughts drifted to Del Rio where my mother grew up. She grew up on a street probably only about 150 yards or so from the Brinkley mansion. I had always heard the tearm ‘quack’ thrown around about him, and my mother told me about swastika decorations in the house and pool, but I never knew the full story. Thank goodness I looked it up tonight. One of the most amazingly funny, sad, stories that could only be fact and not fiction. It is sad how it affected the family though. When I told my mother what I had read about Dr. Brinkley and alcohol, she said his son had turned out the same way and was never found without a drink near by. My aunt taught the grand daughter of Dr. Brinkley to swim at the mansion. At this time how ever the family was devoid of money and the pool was empty, so my aunt instructed her on how to swim in one of the ponds in front of the house.
8. chic lintner, on August 9th, 2008 at 3:13 am said: "My mother and her family lived in milford, KS and my great grandmother did washing for the family and hospital. Mom said no one in town went hungry or without med care. Brinkley built a brick post offie, city park with wading pool. His radio station, and other brick building. She also said every kid had a baby goat as a pet. She said the hospital was very clean and up to date for the times. What brinkley did was no worse than promotion shows on t.v. for sex pepper -uppers or pills that make the penis grow. He also built nice homes for his staff in milford. My folks rented one during the 50’s and it was very nice. mom also said jonnie boy had a small mechanical car that raced around town, making it hard for his bodyguard to keep up with him. So while he may not have been a great dr. he was a caring person, and when you think of the number of people who die each year from dr and hospital mistakes, then it doesn’t seem his track record was so bad. That anyway is what i know and think about Dr. brinkley."
9. William Croxton, on August 16th, 2008 at 6:08 pm said: "A few years ago, in the Real Estate section of eBay, I came across a seller who evidently owned the Brinkley Mansion at that time and had it up on the auction block. To say the least I was intrigued, and wanted so badly to go to Del Rio from my home (at that time) in California just to inspect it for myself because at the time I was more intrigued about it, than I had a real interest in buying the property. I mean, who wants to live in Del Rio anyway? I was particularly interested in the organ. Does anyone by any chance know if the house eventually sold, and, if so, what did it go for? Any information about he transaction would be appreciated."
10. Aaron Voronoff, on December 23rd, 2008 at 6:51 pm said: "This is great stuff. Cool that you have dug up so much info on John Brinkley, what a strange cat. This parallels my own research regarding Serge Voronoff, equally strange research and experiments with monkey glands, although Voronoff was a serious scientist and celebrated doctor. I will link your article, please visit my site and let me know what you think. Cheers: http://www.voronoff.wordpress.com
11. John R. Brinkley « Interstitial Immortality, on December 23rd, 2008 at 7:12 pm said: "[…] The Grave of the Goat Gland Doctor: 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. […]
12. Vance, on December 24th, 2008 at 12:15 am said: "Aaron, I believe Serge Voronoff is mentioned quite a bit in Charlatan so you should definitely pick up a copy. I’m really surprised nobody has written much about Dr. Brinkley before now. Certainly few people in Memphis seem to know about his connection to our city.
13. Nancy Kellman, on March 3rd, 2009 at 2:56 pm said: "I own the 1930 V-16 Transformable Brougham Town Car (limousine) that JR Brinkley painted apple green to match the home in Del Rio, Texas. I have a lot of corroborating evidence that the vehicle I have did in fact belong to Dr. Brinkley. I would very much like to contact Mr. Weiss and challenge his memory on the vehicle. Can you be of help?
14. Alex Garver, on March 12th, 2009 at 4:02 pm said: I’m an Asst. Attorney General for the State of Texas and practice in Del Rio, Texas. Now I will have to read the book and see if I can figure out where the Goat Gland Mansion is.
15. Hunter Bungay, on April 9th, 2009 at 1:56 pm said: "I just read Charlatan - great book and a very quick read. As for the 'good' doctor's mansion; here ya go:
Dr. J.R. Brinkley Mansion, Del Rio, TX” lat=29.3403496502, lon=-100.902405429
Just pump that into Google Earth or maps and have fun." - Hunter