Tuesday History: John Brinkley, the goat gland king

STRANGE MEDICINE: In 1918, "Doctor" John Brinkley implanted goat testes into the first of many patients who sought treatment for impotence. Photo courtesy of Kansas Historical Society.

The John R. Brinkley historic marker in Jackson County, N.C. reads: “Medical maverick, radio and advertising pioneer, candidate for governor of Kansas. Boyhood home stood across the river.” While “medical maverick” touches on Brinkley’s unorthodox role within the world of medicine, it doesn’t address the duplicity of his practice — namely, a scam that involved the implantation of goat testes into patients scrotums as an alleged cure for impotence.

On Wednesday, Jan. 25, noon-1 p.m., local historian Jon Elliston will offer a free multimedia presentation on Brinkley’s life and career. The talk will occur at the Lord Auditorium at Pack Library. In anticipation of the event, Elliston has shared pages with Xpress from a rare Brinkley biography (commissioned by Brinkley in 1937). The work was written by Clement Wood and is titled, The Life of a Man.

Below is an excerpt from the book, highlighting Brinkley’s 1902 visit to Asheville. At the time, Brinkley was 17 years old and working as a postman in Sylva. According to Elliston, “The Asheville visit seems to have inspired him to do big things with his life.”

From the pages of Clement Wood’s The Life of a Man:

[Brinkley] made his arrangements, when he reached Asheville, with the lady who had the boarding house. It was still before noon, and he had time to see a lot before supper. He went right down to the corner, where there was a street car, like a passenger coach that ran by itself; and somebody had told him you could ride on it for only a nickel.

It was still several hours before sundown. He hadn’t hardly believed it, at first, when they had said there were almost fifteen thousand people here, and five thousand of them Negroes. But he had already seen more people that day than you would imagine were in the whole United States, and more Negroes than he thought were in the world. He had seen the place where the Swannanoa runs into the French Broad, and had seen more water than he thought was anywhere in the world, except in the Great Lakes and the ocean maybe. He followed the last conductor’s directions, and walked down to the place they called Riverside Park. There was a pet bear here, the first he had ever seen close-up and a monkey, just like the picture you see in the geography. And he bought and ate a slice of ice cold watermelon. The man even let him touch the ice he had in the pail, ice that people made and sold, he said: ice, in August! There never had been a place as wonderful as this, in the whole world.

He saw an electric light come on, and then all he could see was electric lights. He did not get to bed at all, that night. He spent hours watching the electric lights, burning without oil or anything, not even a wick. When his interest in these flagged, there were always the street cars whizzing by, lit up like the courthouse in Sylva when they were counting the votes. On his way down Patton Avenue, he saw a fruit stand, the first he had ever seen, run by an Italian, the first he had ever seen.

He went back to Sylva [the following day], his head buzzing with the marvels he had seen. From then on, everybody in the neighborhood wagged his head, and said sagely, “Well, I reckon Johnny Brinkley is goin’ to amount to somethin’, after all. He’s bin to Asheville.”

About Thomas Calder
Thomas Calder received his MFA in Fiction from the University of Houston's Creative Writing Program. He has worked with several publications, including Gulf Coast and the Collagist.

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6 thoughts on “Tuesday History: John Brinkley, the goat gland king

  1. luther blissett

    A philandering quack who took advantage of the regulatory free-for-all of early radio, tried to gain political power (and nearly won) and died a bankrupt fraudster. A pure product of America, and an icon for our times.

  2. boatrocker

    Goat ‘jewels’? Ick, but not any more silly and unscientifically proven as the new age woo woo advertised as ‘alternative healing’ almost 100 years later. And given validity by certain publications.

    Brinkley’s ‘work’ reminds me of reading an account of forced sterilizations of mental patients, the Melungeons and criminals in WNC during the 1930’s.
    A then up and coming little fascist with a bizarre interest in eugenics sent many of Germany’s top medical professionals to WNC to study techniques in sterilization to bring back to the der Fatherland.

    • Phil Williams

      Mr. Rocker, it is interesting to note that most of the proponents of the Eugenics Movement (began in the UK around the turn of the 19th/20th century) were the progressives of the era. Economist John Maynard Keynes, Playwright George Bernard Shaw, Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr., Scientists Alexander Graham Bell and Luther Burbank, President Theodore Roosevelt, social activist Margaret Sanger, author and activist Helen Keller….Kind of ironic that the opponents included the Catholic Church and individuals like Christian writers GK Chesterton, C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien and widely ridiculed politician William Jennings Bryan.

      • boatrocker

        By no means would I agree with any of that eugenics stuff, but at the time, ‘The White Man’s Burden’ idea was popular in England. Not my Tolkien, please!

        Phrenology of all things was used in order to justify whitey’s ‘superiority’ over other races earlier in the 1800’s in both England and America.
        Nowadays white power types use crime and poverty statistics to justify ‘white superiority’.

        I find it hilarious that every time there is an article about veganism, Dr. Peter Singer, a proponent of both parent induced infanticide and eugenics is always quoted about modern day society not dwelling on the ‘sins of our grandfathers’.

        But really, goat jewels? People fell for that? I’m picturing his patients eating cans and paper products and such.

        • Phil Williams

          You’d think that ol’ Goat Glands would have racked up quite a few cases of permanent sterility, terribly swelled up jewel sacks – I would imagine a few deaths from sepsis, being that antibiotics were several years away….I reckon people were tough as well as gullible.

          Folks back then were idealists in a way – and given some of the awful diseases, social conditions, unbelievable treatment of the mentally ill during that time, there were many concerns about the “Malthusian Catastrophe” – and some thinkers believed that perhaps engineering/culling the human “herd” to curb overpopulation, and breed out “undesirable traits” – and what Justice Holmes referred to as “imbeciles” was not such a bad idea so long as it was carried out “scientifically” without resorting to actual murder.

          Once eugenics became associated with Der Fuhrer and the Nazis, many supporters, like Ms. Sanger, began to rapidly distance themselves (at least publicly) from the movement – or at least to incorporate parts of the theory into other movements.

          I have often opined that it is difficult and somewhat unfair to judge people of the past using an “absolute” moral yardstick of the present day – I mean to say, who the heck doesn’t love Helen Keller or Teddy Roosevelt??

          Perhaps it might be an epiphany of sorts to some folks that the Eugenics Movement did not originate, nor was solely embraced/practiced in the American South – but also that Southerners like Colonel/Governor/Senator Zeb Vance did not hold a monopoly on questionable social notions and mores.

  3. Phil Williams

    John “Goat Glands” Brinkley’s house and a monument he erected to his Aunt Sally (who raised him) are still visible on Hwy 107 in the Tuckaseegee community between Cullowhee and Glenville…the stone wall fronting the highway still has “BRINKLEY” inlaid into the wall & is easily visible as you drive past. The late John Parris wrote a piece on him in the Asheville Citizen many years ago…

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