By: Sam Zeff and Matt Hodapp
If I were to tell you about a millionaire running for high political office that found his fame in the media, and financed himself through somewhat sketchy endeavors, a man who worked outside of the regular political channels and who seemed to be constantly battling the establishment, you would probably say, I know who that is, Donald Trump.
But long before Trump, or Ross Perot, or Michael Bloomberg for that matter, there was Dr. John R. Brinkley. The R stands for Romulus, but by the time Doc Brinkley moved to Kansas in 1916 he changed his middle name to Richard. Nobody knows why except that Doc had mightily transformed himself when he settled in tiny Milford, Kansas, about 20 miles west of Manhattan and just north of Fort Riley.
From Milford, Doc Brinkley would create a medical empire on questionable patent medicines and, of all things, goat glands. He would battle everyone from the American Medical Association to William Rockhill Nelson, the powerful editor of the Kansas City Star. And Doc, that’s what everyone called him, would perhaps have the most colorful political career of anyone in Kansas.
Doc was born in 1885 in North Carolina to a country doctor, but he was orphaned by age 10 and raised by an aunt. Not surprisingly, he bounced between just shady and criminal behavior. He and a partner opened a storefront medical clinic in North Carolina where he racked up debts he never payed. He was charged with practicing medicine without a license, and he had a failed marriage.
Finally, he found himself at the Eclectic Medical College in Kansas City, Kansas. Eclectic med schools were private and popped up mostly in the midwest and taught the use of botanical remedies, an extension of herbal remedies. This training seems to play into exactly the kind of medicine Brinkley practiced: out on the edge but with some basis in science.
Doc never graduated from Eclectic, but it was 1916 and it really doesn’t take much to become a doctor. Brinkley then married his second wife Minnie. They set up shop in Milford and start to spread the good word about...goat glands.
If you’ve ever been to a state fair, you might have noticed the size of the gonads on some goats. Doc figured if you transplanted those into men, virility would go through the roof. Not everyone agreed, but he certainly had a following.
Brinkley really took off after a 1922 trip to California to do some goat gland surgery, a trip promoted by the powerful publisher of the Los Angeles Times, Harry Chandler.
Brinkley was already a bit infamous in the medical world, but Chandler pulled some strings and landed Brinkley a 30 day license to practice in California. People seemed to think the transplanted goat glands were doing the sexual trick, and the Times promoted Doc’s business. And it’s while in L.A. that Doc toured KHJ, the Chandler radio station.
It’s at that point that Doc apparently puts the whole scheme together in his head: medical advice broadcast over a radio station that will drive people to pharmacies to buy Doc’s remedies, and lure them to rural Kansas for a goat gland transplant that in current dollars would set you back about $10,000.
By 1930, Doc Brinkley was rich and famous. His radio station KFKB, most believe it stands for Kansas First, Kansas Best, was heard over a wide swath of the country. But he had also made powerful enemies. The American Medical Association was after him as well as the Kansas City Star and Emporia Gazette, both had national influence at the time.
With opponents closing in from all sides Doc Brinkley made a huge decision. He decided he wasn't going to flee, but he was going to run...for Kansas governor.
Doc got in late and had to run a write-in campaign. It was a close election, much closer than it should be for a candidate who got in so late and wasn’t even on the ballot. Doc got about 30 percent of the vote, losing to Harry Hines Woodring, who would become Franklin Roosevelt’s secretary of war.
Doc ran for Kansas governor two more times, losing as an independent against Alf Landon in 1932, again with about 30 percent of the vote and to Landon again in 1934, this time in the Republican primary.
Brinkley ran as a populist. It was the depression, parts of Kansas were plagued by the Dust Bowl, and Doc was out there campaigning for what we would now call a social safety net.
By the 1934 campaign, Brinkley is mostly out of Kansas. He has had enough, and he moved most of his operation to Del Rio, Texas, right across the Rio Grande from Mexico. But Doc was not done in medicine or radio, and not nearly done in politics.
Doc did for Del Rio what he did for Milford; paved the streets and brought business to town. The radio operation had become even more important since the move south. Doc not only left Kansas to get away from the medical establishment, but KFKB was also causing him headaches.
By moving the transmitter to Mexico, he escaped regulations, at least for a time, and at one point he had a million watt signal that could be heard in Kansas, Canada and, some locals say, in their dentures. By comparison, the most powerful AM radio stations in America today top out at 50,000 watts.
He was still doing medical proceeders, of course, but not as many goat gland operations and his speciality was now an early version of a vasectomy at $1,000 a pop. By the late 30's, his obsession with FDR was growing as was his isolationist views.
Brinkley's anti-Roosevelt broadcasts dominated Doc’s radio appearances, and did so as World War II breaks out in Europe and the isolationists in America fought any notion that the U.S. should get involved. Those views fade after Pearl Harbor as does the whole Brinkley empire.
He mounted a run for senate from Texas in 1941 after an incumbant dies, but it didn't go anywhere. The American Medical Association went after him again, as did the US State Department and the IRS. He’s charged with mail fraud by the Post Office.
By 1941, after a disastrous venture in Arkansas he went bankrupt, had three heart attacks and died pennieless in 1942. He was 57 years old.
There’s really no John R. Brinkley legacy, just a tragic end. The mansion in Del Rio is a historic site, but that’s about it.
His son, Johnny Boy, gave an interview about his father in the middle 70's for a documentary film, but he killed himself a few months later.
Doc’s goat gland procedure for male sexual virility is just another thing in a long line of things men do for sexual virility.
But if there is a legacy, maybe it’s a political one. It’s hard to know how much of Doc’s politics were simply aimed at protecting a million dollar business. Did Milford, Kansas make him a populist or was populism just a craven attempt at high political office? Was he truly an isolationist with an anti-Semitic bent or did he think that’s what his huge radio audience wanted to hear?
We’ll never really know, but William Allen White had something to say about it. Here’s what he wrote in the Emporia Gazette after White learned Doc was vying for that Texas senate seat.
This appeared in May 15th, 1941 editions:
“He will appeal to the hill billy mind as It has never been lured before. He is Irresistible to the moron mind and Texas has plenty of such. Perhaps that is unfair. Very likely Texas has no more morons than Kansas. So while pointing with pride to the fact that Kansas escaped the doctor's clutches, we view with alarm for the United States the danger which Impends in Texas. If this republic ever totters to its fall it will be because the moron minority shall sometime, somewhere, somehow, gain a party majority by unscrupulous leadership."
Our theme music used in this episode is Shy Touches by Nameless Dancers .