Books you might like, Vol. 1: Charlatan, by Pope Brock

This is the strangest fad I had never heard anything about. Dr. John R. Brinkley was one part politician, one part radio pioneer and several parts mad scientist. Looking for his next swindle to wreak upon the small town of Milford, Kansas, Brinkley stumbled upon the idea (already being tried in Europe by some notable medical pioneers) of transplanting animal sex organs into the human body in order to restore “sexual vigor” and to lengthen lifespan. Brinkley’s midwestern twist? Goats (instead of monkeys, of course).

Brock’s book reads like a bizarre steampunk novel, detailing the strange habits, notions and scientific advances of the 20s and 30s that led to a culture of medicine that would simultaneously accept and reject the notion that implanting animal glands could heal, inspire and “rejuvenate” the human body.

But Brinkley’s journey was not a solitary one. Along with Brinkley comes the parallel story of Dr. Morris Fishbein and the early days of the American Medical Association and its journal, JAMA. Now of course the official body for licensing standards in the US, the AMA didn’t always wield that power. It was the long history by quack doctors like Brinkley that led Fishbein to the landmark case with which Brock ends his excellent tale (and ultimately to their own demise). Likewise, JAMA did not always lead with the latest research articles, but with Fishbein at the helm, it often featured withering critiques of the swindles and quackery running rampant across the United States.

The story Brock weaves in Charlatan is thus the story of two men, Brinkley and Fishbein, and a nation, because in spite of his grotesque abuses, Brinkley was also a pioneer in radio broadcasting (helping to launch the Carter Family from his “border-blaster” radio station, XER; and establishing right-wing evangelical talk radio as an American staple), political campaigning (using a private plane to travel across the state in record time) and pharmaceutical advertising. Brock’s tale is peppered with strange and wonderful relics of the era:

As for the sponsors who made it all possible, they transformed customers’ lives with products like Kolorbak hair dye (which caused lead poisoning), Lash Lure (blindness), Radithor (“Certified Radioactive Water”), and Koremlu, later described by investigators as “a depilatory made from rat poison.” Lysol was touted as “a safe douche.”

In our age of participatory medicine and empowered patients, Charlatan is a wonderful read to remember the times in which it wasn’t always that way, and to remind us all of the importance of just how good (comparatively) we’ve got it these days. For health librarians, the insider’s view of Fishbein’s quest and an early JAMA is enough to keep you reading. For everyone else, the unbelievable quality of almost everything else should keep you entertained.

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