John Romulus (changed to John Richard) Brinkley, controversial medical charlatan, broadcaster, and political candidate, the only son of John and Candice (Burnett) Brinkley, was born near Beta, Jackson County, North Carolina, on July 8, 1885. He was orphaned at an early age and was raised by an aunt. He married Sally Wike in 1908, and they had three daughters. In 1913 that marriage ended in divorce, and Brinkley married Minnie Telitha Jones. They had a son.
Brinkley was educated in a one-room school at Tuckasiegee, North Carolina, but never earned a diploma. From 1907 through 1915 he attended several diploma mills such as Bennett Medical College of Chicago and Eclectic Medical University of Kansas City. In spite of dubious credentials he was licensed by the state of Arkansas and set up a medical practice in Milford, Kansas. In 1918 he began performing his controversial "goat gland operation," designed to restore male virility and fertility by the implantation of goat glands. Before long more than 100 customers a week were receiving the $750 rejuvenation operation. As a result of the operations and a large patent medicine business, "Doc" Brinkley became extremely wealthy. In 1923 he constructed the first radio station in Kansas, KFKB, a powerful station that carried country music and fundamentalist preaching.
In 1928 the American Medical Association's executive secretary, Dr. Morris Fishbein, attacked Brinkley for diagnosing illnesses and prescribing medicines over the radio. Consequently, in 1930 the Kansas State Medical Board revoked Brinkley's medical license, and the Federal Radio Commission refused to renew his broadcasting license. Brinkley responded by entering the governor's race, hoping to appoint new members to the medical board. Running as an independent, write-in candidate, he came extremely close to winning–his loss coming only because thousands of votes were thrown out on technicalities. Subsequent bids for the governorship in 1932 and 1934 also failed.
In 1931 he received authority from Mexican officials to build a powerful transmitter at Villa Acuña, Mexico, across the river from Del Rio, Texas. In 1933 he moved his entire medical staff and facilities to the Roswell Hotel in Del Rio. He used his station, XER, to entice his listeners to visit his clinic or buy an array of gimmicks, among them ampules of colored water, at a price of six for $100. In Texas he rarely implanted goat glands, but substituted what he described as "commercial glandular preparations." He also performed numerous prostate operations and instituted the use of Mercurochrome shots and pills to help restore youthful vigor. Estimates are that he earned $12 million between 1933 and 1938. During this period his conspicuous display of wealth–a lavish mansion, expensive cars, planes, yachts, and diamonds–was second to none. In 1938 he moved his medical activities to Little Rock, Arkansas, but maintained his residence in Texas. About that time he lost a libel suit against Fishbein, fought numerous malpractice suits, and battled the Internal Revenue Service over back taxes. In 1941 he was forced to file for bankruptcy. The following year circulatory problems led to the amputation of one of his legs, and on May 26, 1942, he died in San Antonio of heart failure. He was buried in Memphis, Tennessee.
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Gerald Carson, The Roguish World of Doctor Brinkley (New York: Rinehart, 1960). Dictionary of American Biography. Gene Fowler and Bill Crawford, Border Radio (Austin: Texas Monthly Press, 1987). New York Times, May 27, 1942. Frank Wardlaw, "The Goat-Gland Man," Southwest Review 66 (Spring 1981).
Health and Medicine
The following, adapted from the Chicago Manual of Style, 15th edition, is the preferred citation for this entry.
Keith D. McFarland,
“Brinkley, John Romulus,”
Handbook of Texas Online,
accessed May 17, 2022,
Published by the Texas State Historical Association.
Original Publication Date:
Most Recent Revision Date:
November 1, 1994
This entry belongs to the following Handbook Special Projects: