Why write about the story of America’s most notorious medical quack for a tax and business newsletter?
John Brinkley had a phenomenal career. He was a master of self-promotion. How he did it is worthwhile for any businessperson to study.
Brinkley never graduated from a legitimate medical college. He was successful in getting honorary degrees and mail order degrees. He was licensed to practice medicine in several states and those licenses were eventually revoked.
His career spanned the first forty years of the 1900s, when the medical profession wasn’t well defined and established. In the process of bringing down Brinkley and other charlatans, Morris Fishbein, editor of the Journal of the American Medical Association, helped establish the AMA as the source of standards and quality control for the profession.
Brinkley’s trademark procedure was implanting goat testicles in humans, initially to restore sexual potency and relieve enlarged prostrate symptoms. Eventually, he offered to treat virtually any medical condition.
Since legitimate medical doctors weren’t allowed to advertise, the field was left open for exploitation by unscrupulous quacks. Even today, people seeking relief from pain and suffering often don’t trust the "orthodox" medical profession and go for help elsewhere.
Brinkley was a master of the media. He had the highest powered radio station in the Midwest. His "hook" to attract listeners was some of the finest entertainers of the time, particularly country and western performers. He built the country and western industry.
Brinkley invited listeners to write in about their illnesses. He would freely prescribe with code named potions on the air on the Medical Question Box segment. Brinkley set up an "affiliate program" for drug stores to carry his prescribed products to be sold at exorbitant prices.
Through his radio appearances, Brinkley became a celebrity who established a deep emotional bond with his listeners.
Brinkley also had a multiple-step sales letter campaign soliciting patients for his hospital.
Eventually, Brinkley lost his medical license in Kansas where his hospital was located and the predecessor to the FCC revoked his license for his radio station. Brinkley tried to stop these actions by running for governor of Kansas as a write-in candidate. He had a whirlwind airplane campaign (he owned the airplane) to get support from massive crowds. If not for some questionable changes to election rules by the state legislature, he would have won.
When Brinkley’s operations in Kansas were shut down, he moved the radio station, XERA, to Mexico. Eventually the station had over one million watts of broadcasting power. They say the hairs on your arm would stand up when you were close to the broadcasting towers. The signal covered the entire United States and several countries. Cutting edge country and western performers were featured on the station, and Brinkley established the Carter family as America’s top country western group.
Brinkley set up his hospital in a Texas town across the border from the radio station. Texas welcomed Brinkley with open arms for the dollars brought by his patients to the state.
Brinkley’s media power and celebrity power also gave him enormous political power to help him block efforts to shut him down.
Finally, his conceit was his downfall. John Brinkley sued Morris Fishbein for slander.
Fishbein satisfied a court that was very sympathetic to him and didn’t support Brinkley that his allegations that Brinkley was a fraud were well-founded.
The flood gates were opened for lawsuits by unhappy patients and their families against Brinkley. He was financially and emotionally ruined.
The U.S. government was successful in getting the Mexican government to revoke Brinkley’s broadcasting license. Mexican troops seized and sacked the station in 1941. Eventually, the station resumed operations under the call letters XERF. The successor radio announcer? Bob Smith of Brooklyn, New York, otherwise known as "Wolfman Jack". The station continued the tradition of cutting edge music broadcasting across the United States.
John Brinkley is not a role model. Hundreds of people died from his medical malpractice.
His trail blazing advertising practices, use of the media to establish himself as a celebrity authority, and his innovative political campaign are worth learning about.
Similar tactics are being used today.
Don’t be a victim of them.
Buy it on Amazon: Charlatan: America's Most Dangerous Huckster, the Man Who Pursued Him, and the Age of Flimflam.
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