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Billy, goats, Brinkley and an uplifting cure

In 2008 Viagra, a blockbuster for Pfizer, celebrated its 10th annivesary. Ian MacKillop tells the tale of an earlier treatment for impotence

by Ian MacKillop

In 2008 Viagra, a blockbuster for Pfizer, celebrated its 10th annivesary. Ian MacKillop tells the tale of an earlier treatment for impotence

See other Christmas miscellany articles


It is said that, before the general acceptance of the germ theory of disease (which finally did away with the practice of bloodletting) doctors were generally useless. Some hold that this held true until the discovery of effective antibiotics; others might say that it still holds, but I will not go there.

Suffice to say that up to and including the early 20th century it was possible for conventional and unconventional medicine to hold equal sway. This meant, in effect, that any quack could proclaim himself the saviour of mankind with any untested treatment. This article considers the career of one of these: John Brinkley.

Brinkley’s specialty was the treatment of a condition that has vexed man — and to a lesser extent, woman — for centuries: impotence.

(A quick technical interlude: I prefer to use the term “impotence” rather than “erectile dysfunction”, because the latter has come to mean impotence arising solely from impaired vascular flow to the penis, while impotence may in fact arise from any of several causes, psychological as well as physiological.)

The theory behind Brinkley’s remedy — surgical insertion of a goat’s testicles into the scrotal sac — was not original. It derived from the theories and experiments of two French scientists, Charles Brown-Sequard and Serge Voronoff.

They investigated, independently, the possibility of remedying various bodily deficiencies by administering hormones extracted from the glands of healthy specimens of the same or other species.

In 1889, Sequard claimed to have rendered himself “30 years younger” by injecting himself with an extract prepared from the crushed testicles of dogs; he asserted that it had restored his “stamina and intellectual vigour”, enabling him to “visit” his new young wife daily. He lost credibility soon after, however, when she left him for a man closer to her own age.

Voronoff preferred animal experimentation, insisting that he had restored the sexual appetite of an ageing ram by transplanting a lamb’s testicles into it. These experiments gave rise to the infamous “monkey gland” theory, which held that a person’s lost youth might be restored by injecting the glands of a suitable primate.

The theory survives today merely as a plotline in the fiction of time (‘The creeping man’, one of Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes stories being a good example) but not before it came to Brinkley’s attention.

It was 1919 and “Doctor” John Brinkley (his doctorate having been purchased from the eclectic Medical University of Kansas City, Missouri, after he had failed to qualify in Chicago) had only recently established his practice in Milford, Kansas, when a local farmer called Stittsworth came to him desperate for a cure for impotence.

As it happened, Brinkley had recently been reading a report on Sequard and Voronoff’s experiments and wondered if their methods might work. The fact that he was not a surgeon did not concern him in the slightest — after all he was hardly a doctor. More surprisingly, it did not seem to concern Stittsworth either.

It did not take Brinkley long to decide on goats as the best donors. He had become well acquainted with their sexual drive during his time as a house doctor in a meat packing company. He mugged up on basic surgical procedures, purchased a goat and the transplant was duly performed.

Remarkably, the following year, Mrs Stittsworth gave birth to a son named, without a trace of irony, Billy.

Angoras and Toggenbergs

This initial success gave rise to a whole new cottage industry for Brinkley. He offered his services for $750 a time and had no shortage of takers. After a few unfortunate side effects with Angoras — the smell was “too persistent” — he used only Toggenbergs, whose odour is less pronounced. He even took to keeping them in a pen at the back of his surgery so clients could pick their donor. He became known as the Milford Messiah.

When one Harry Chandler received the benefit of Brinkley’s services, the latter’s future seemed assured — Chandler was the proprietor of the Los Angeles Times and instructed his journalists to give Brinkley favourable coverage. Anticipating rich pickings, Brinkley relocated to California.

It was to prove a wrong move. The California state medical authorities were not impressed with Brinkley’s methods and they were even less impressed with his qualifications. They revoked his licence to practise and initiated criminal proceedings. Brinkley hurried back to Milford. From then on he resolved to let his business come to him.

In 1923 he set up his own radio station, KFKB, whose output consisted in equal measure of medical lectures (mostly by and about himself) and country and western. It succeeded beyond Brinkley’s wildest dreams and clients were soon descending on Milford from every state in the union.

At one point, he was getting through 40 goats a week (and not only goats — the more discerning client could, for the higher fee of $5,000, receive human implants obtained, it is said, from condemned prisoners).

Inevitably, Brinkley overreached himself. He introduced a new feature to his radio station, “Dr Brinkley’s Medical Question Box”, an early form of distance prescribing.

Listeners wrote in with their medical complaints and he broadcast the appropriate cure, which was, invariably, one of his own patent remedies, as approved by the national Dr Brinkley Pharmaceutical Association, and available at all (participating) pharmacies.

This was too much for the Kansas state medical authorities. Reluctant as they were to move against the Milford Messiah, it was a simple enough matter to analyse his remedies. When they proved to be mostly indigo-coloured water, the game was up.

They took their findings to the Federal Radio Commission, which immediately shut down the KFKB for promoting fraud. The fate of the participating pharmacists is not recorded.

Brinkley went on the move again, this time choosing to set up shop in el Rio, Texas. His choice was based on the town’s proximity to the Mexican border, more specifically its proximity to a Mexican radio station, XERA, which he promptly purchased. Brinkley was back in business.

So began a decade-long battle between Brinkley and the US federal authorities. In 1930, he even ran for state governor, as a public benefactor menaced by an unfeeling government. Eventually, in 1939, the US authorities managed to persuade the Mexican government to move against Brinkley and XERA was shut down.

This time, it really was the end of the road. He declared himself bankrupt and sat back and waited for his arrest. But it was not to be. In 1942, while the case against him was still being prepared, he died of a heart attack at the age of 57. Much of the broadcasting and medical legislation in force in the US today stands as his legacy.


Ian MacKillop is a pharmacist in Ilminster

Citation: The Pharmaceutical Journal URI: 10043700

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