In looking back at the last century from our 2008 perspective, two of the most interesting decades were The Roaring Twenties and the Great Depression. These 20 years witnessed an upheaval in the status quo of social structures, medicine, the arts and physical sciences.
The 1920s gave us broadcasting as we know it today, and during the next decade it matured into the great empire that became part of virtually everyone’s daily existence.
Many stories are intertwined with radio from that period, but one of the most interesting and long-running is that of a small-town “doctor” who become a multimillionaire when most of the country was caught up in a crashed stock market and bread lines. He also routinely thumbed his nose at regulatory bodies including the Federal Radio Commission and its successor, the FCC.
That individual was John Romulus Brinkley.
When millions were out of work, Brinkley made millions. He boasted an elaborate mansion with herds of exotic animals roaming the grounds, a fleet of customized Cadillacs, sailing vessels, airplanes and a radio station that was 10 times more powerful than anything U.S. laws allowed.
Brinkley was not a radio scientist or an engineer. Neither was he an artist nor a performer in the strictest sense. He uttered his last words into a radio microphone some 70 years ago and has been dead for almost that long.
Yet his name is irrevocably intertwined with broadcasting. A certain radio law is referred to as the “Brinkley Act” and his actions influenced radio treaties. He spawned a genre of broadcasting that continued for decades. And the roots of a large electronics firm still in business just may have been nurtured by his quest for a louder voice.
Though his mortal remains are safely entombed in a Memphis cemetery, the spirit of J.R. Brinkley — a.k.a. Doctor Brinkley, or just plain “Doctor”— refuses to die. Perhaps this could be linked with the commodity he peddled to thousands of men and women: the promise of eternal youth, as least as far as sexual performance went.
Who was that masked man? Courtesy Kansas State Historical Society, copy and reuse restrictions apply.
Authors and historians manage to keep Brinkley alive in their writings. With some degree of regularity a new book or article surfaces about the king of the medical quacks.
Pope Brock is author of the latest book, published by Crown earlier this year; “Charlatan: America’s Most Dangerous Huckster, the Man Who Pursued Him, and the Age of Flimflam” now will be released in paperback come January.
‘America’s most dangerous huckster’
Brock’s book takes a slightly different tack in his treatment of Brinkley, referring to him as America’s most dangerous huckster and describing the events that toppled Brinkley’s mighty empire and ended his infamous nightly broadcasts.
Along with most of the great and powerful, there is usually a detractor or two, someone who sees it as their duty, perhaps their “manifest destiny,” to level the playing field and right wrongs in the name of law and order, or perhaps just plain old common decency.
Brinkley’s was Dr. Morris Fishbein, who studied medicine in the same city and about the same time as Brinkley, and whose “hands-on” medical experience was much less than that of “Doctor.” After only a year, Fishbein chucked his medical training to become a journalist.
Brock’s book can best be described as an account of the “cat and mouse” game played out between these men.
Is “Charlatan” of interest to contemporary broadcasters?
The answer is a resounding “yes,” even though Brock doesn’t spend that much time on Brinkley’s broadcasting activities, and there are some slight inaccuracies in what he does describe. However, as Brinkley’s fame, fortune and legacy were very much wrapped around broadcasting, “Charlatan” certainly is worth reading.
Brinkley was born dirt poor in a small North Carolina town, but he had ambition and intelligence. He chose medicine as his ticket and eventually found his way to a Chicago medical school, but dropped out before completing the program.
He then drifted for some time, dabbling in the fine art of flimflam and practicing “electro-medicine” before meeting and marrying the love of his life, Minnie Jones, daughter of a “real” doctor. Brinkley eventually (and after a sum of money was exchanged) obtained a medical degree of sorts from a questionable Kansas City school and in 1917 settled down in the small Kansas town of Milford to try to eke out a living.
Doctor’s practice generated little income until one day when he saw a patient complaining of (ahem) erectile dysfunction. Viagra hadn’t been invented, and the conversation between patient and doctor turned to the sexual prowess of goats.
Brinkley’s border blaster XER (later XERA) was located in Villa Acuña, Coahuila, Mexico, and used a flat-top antenna supported by large self-supporting 300-foot towers. Construction of one of the towers is shown. A worker appears to be hanging in space while another waves at the camera. Work on the station began in 1931. Courtesy Kansas State Historical Society, copy and reuse restrictions apply.
Eventually, Doctor was talked into transplanting testicular tissue from a goat into the non-performing patient. The ED spell somehow was broken and the patent praised Brinkley’s operation for returning joy to relationships.
KHJ: A religious experience
Word spread (perhaps aided by ads in Sunday supplements) and soon men were arriving in Milford by the trainload for Doctor’s $750 goat gland operation.
In early 1922, Brinkley was invited out to California by Harry Chandler, owner of the Los Angeles Times, to minister to the needs of an editor and others who were in dire need of having goat glands installed.
It was here that Brinkley got his first close look at a radio station, the newspaper’s fledgling KHJ. Brock describes this as “a religious experience” for Brinkley. After his return to Kansas, he wasted no time in obtaining a broadcasting license. He was assigned the call letters KFKB and hired a young radio engineer, James O. Weldon, to get him on the air.
John R. Brinkley was fascinated by radio broadcasting and built one of the largest medium-wave stations in the world. Courtesy Kansas State Historical Society, copy and reuse restrictions apply.
Once this was done, Brinkley, between live musical numbers, pitched medical advice and pandered for a chain of affiliated drug stores that he’d set up to peddle overpriced prefab prescriptions.
Fishbein, by now editor of the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) and with a special interest in exposing medical quackery, got wind of Brinkley and this “Medical Question Box” show.
Radio’s reach made Doctor even more successful in luring the hopeful into Milford for his particular brand of elective surgery. The townspeople loved Brinkley; Doctor was good about spreading around the money that his business brought into Milford.
Fishbein was incensed and dedicated himself to put Doctor out of business. Eventually he succeeded, with Brinkley losing both his radio and Kansas medical licenses.
However, unknown to Fishbein, Brinkley possessed a trump card.
Move to Texas
During the hearings and appeals, Doctor secretly negotiated an agreement to build a 75 kW radio transmitter on Mexican soil, just across the border from Del Rio, Texas.
He was assigned the call XER and Weldon soon relocated his consulting business to the border town. Brinkley already had a license to practice medicine in Texas and was quick to tell the Federal Radio Commission back in Washington that he didn’t need their stinkin’ license to operate XER.
For nearly a decade, Doctor lured people into his Del Rio hospital, had Weldon construct bigger and bigger transmitters for his use and made mountains of money. (In addition to performing surgery, Brinkley sold time on XER for $1,700 per hour).
Fishbein was livid, as was the U.S. government and many American broadcasters. For a time, Brinkley parked XER at 735 kilocycles, enabling him to take out two U.S. stations at the same time. If that weren’t enough, Brinkley had Weldon construct a reflector for his tophat antenna. There was no point in wasting precious RF in Mexico where few could afford the gringo’s operations.
However, international politics being what they were (and with some bribes spread around), there was little that could be done to silence Doctor. The citizens of Del Rio were benefitting from the influx of cash that Brinkley’s business brought with it and were not about to take a scalpel to the golden goat gland man.
1 million watts ERP
This XERA QSL card was issued near the end of Brinkley’s involvement with radio, as it indicates that the station was operating with half a million watts and was located at 960 kHz. This frequency move took place in 1940.
Ultimately, Weldon constructed a 500,000 Watt transmitter exclusively for Brinkley’s use. With the reflector’s 3 dB boost, in effect this gave Doctor a megawatt signal.
In an attempt to muzzle Brinkley, a bill was passed to prohibit transmission of programs from an American studio to a transmitter located on foreign soil, the so-called “Brinkley Act.” He wasn’t called out by name, and he sidestepped the legislation by fine-tuning the art of transcription recording. Nothing in the law said American recordings couldn’t be aired on foreign stations.
Brinkley enjoyed broadcasting (and money) so much that he prepared a backup plan for staying on the air should he fall from grace with Mexican politicos. He owned a 172 foot yacht and in the event of another doomsday, Weldon would be paid to install a suitable transmitter and Doctor could continue to broadcast unmolested from international waters.
The need for the radioboat never materialized, for in 1938 Fishbein hit upon a way to take Brinkley down for good. He did this by publishing an article about “medical charlatans” in a relatively obscure little magazine. Of course, Brinkley was included among the quacks Fishbein singled out.
The big fall
Brinkley took Fishbein’s bait, bringing a libel suit against the JAMA editor.
He apparently was unaware of what goes on in a libel trial and soon found his life, store-bought medical diploma and questionable career spread out under a microscope before a Texas jury. Brinkley lost and could now officially be labeled a quack. Business fell off drastically and malpractice suits followed, quickly reducing Doctor to pauper status.
At about the same time, the Mexican government silenced Brinkley’s border blaster, then identified as XERA.
It was dismantled, with pieces carted off to Mexico City and rebuilt as a rather puny 200 kilowatter. Brinkley’s health failed and he died in 1942.
Pope Brock’s 2008 book is newly out in paperback.
Weldon moved east to build several big U.S. stations, and during WWII was named to direct engineering activities for what became the Voice of America. After the war, he relocated to Dallas and established Continental Electronics. The company specialized in high-power transmitters constructed around Bill Doherty’s high-efficiency amplifier — the same configuration he’d used in Brinkley’s 500,000 Watt rig.
Over the years, some of the inequities that existed in frequency assignments for North America stations were sorted out through international treaties, with Mexico finally getting her fair share of “clears.”
Brinkley’s nefarious transborder broadcasting activities spawned a number of imitators, giving rise to a generation or so of preacher-creatures and radio hucksters of all sorts. Good came out of the “XE” stations too, as they provided exposure for some now legendary country and western entertainers, and later rhythm and blues artists. And of course they provided a big career boost for Robert Smith, a.k.a. Wolfman Jack.
Brock’s book covers a good bit of this and his detective work provides a look at some aspects of Brinkley’s life that haven’t been previously reported.
He points out that if the truth be known, Brinkley wasn’t the only or even the first of the practitioners who promised eternal sexual youth through “gland” transplants. Contemporaries hawked monkey glands and even human testicles (obtained from young death row inmates).
Fishbein certainly knew about these practitioners too, but wasn’t that aggressive in trying to snap his jaws around them. They didn’t have radio stations.
James E. O’Neal is the technology editor for TV Technology magazine and a Radio World contributor. His past articles have delved into topics such as the closure of the VOA shortwave station at Delano, Calif., and the reputed 2006 Christmas Eve broadcast by Reginald Fessenden.