‘Every Man His Own Doctor’: Probing Public Health and Medical Quackery in U.S. Historical Newspapers and Government Publications
On February 3, 1920, the Fort Worth Star-Telegram reported on a surgeon who was “grafting the intestinal glands of a goat into human beings to cure those treated of sterility.” The report continues:
Within the past two years, by means of such operations, Dr. Brinkley has made it possible for three men and one woman to become parents. In all four cases the glands of a male goat were used. In each instance a baby boy was born.
In his most recent case Dr. Brinkley used the gland of a female goat.
“I do not say this woman will have a girl baby,” said Dr. Brinkley today, “but I am experimenting. It may be merely a coincidence that all the babies so far have been boys.”
The notorious career of medical mountebank John Brinkley—including years of goat-gland experiments—can be traced through hundreds of articles in Early American Newspapers. Three days after the Fort Worth Star-Telegram story appeared, Brinkley, who had no formal medical education, expanded his claims, as seen in The San Diego Union and Daily Bee:
“The vast majority of people have a misconception as to the experiment I have been making. While it is true that in six cases where I have transplanted goat glands, children have been born of parents who had previously been childless from a scientific standpoint the benefits of the glands are general. I am trying to show that the introduction of goat glands in the system will restore one’s health generally. It will make old men and old women more vigorous mentally as well as physically. I realize it is hard to keep people from viewing this experiment from one angle only—but the experiment has back of it principles that are not confined solely to propagating the race.”
In a paragraph subtitled, “Simple Explanation,” Brinkley offers additional information from his research at a meat-packing company:
“Many persons have wondered why I use the goat glands for this operation,” said Dr. Brinkley, “and the explanation is simple enough. While on the physicians’ staff of Swift & Co. in Kansas City, I took the time to study the characteristics of the various animals. I found that the goat alone of all animals was not susceptible to the diseases with which the human family is afflicted. The goat never has a disease common to human beings. All other animals do. Tuberculosis and pneumonia, as we know, is fatal among all varieties of animals and this is particularly true of the monkey. I have read reports on an inspection of half a million goats and from these reports I know the goat is the healthiest of animals. I have never heard of a goat dying a natural death. To die he must be knocked in the head. Thus, in my packing house experience, I never did see a sick goat. He is an extraordinary animal. Freed from the butcher’s knife and ax, he would live forever.”
“In deciding upon these experiments therefore I selected the goat as a gland producer rather than the monkey or the human being. A San Francisco surgeon has used the glands of condemned criminals, but there are dangers of hereditary influences to be considered there. The criminals’ glands may be diseased and these diseases might be manifested in a future generation.”
He then seemingly contradicts himself:
“My own experiments have shown conclusively that the glands can be transplanted and that they function properly after transplanting. We have the babies here to prove it and these babies don’t look like goats either, an interesting fact which I wish you would be sure to add, as any number of persons have asked me if there would be any danger of children looking like members of the goat family.
“The goat gland becomes a part of the human system and functions naturally after it is transplanted,” said Dr. Brinkley, “and it is silly for anyone to believe that distinct animal traits would be revealed in children that owe their being to the goat gland.”
Not everyone was as enthralled with his findings; in a section titled “Sidelights and Satire,” the Morning Oregonian mocks Brinkley’s procedure:
Nothing startling in the discovery that goat glands renew vim, vigor and vitality. A goat gland feels right at home in the average human being.
* * *
Nor is it surprising that a young goat can make a man feel like a kid.
And still others were not at all amused by the claims. Dr. Morris Fishbein, a trained physician and Journal of the American Medical Association editor, publicly questioned Brinkley’s methods for years. In 1938 Fishbein published an article titled “Modern Medical Charlatans” in which he called Brinkley a charlatan and a quack and drew attention to his dubious medical credentials. In 1939, Brinkley sued Fishbein for libel but lost, as seen in this article published in the Dallas Morning News.
Brinkley’s loss led to lawsuits by former patients, investigations of him by the Internal Revenue Service for tax fraud and by the Post Office Department for mail fraud, and his eventual bankruptcy.
While today we may view with drollery the cures Brinkley peddled, the danger to public health by medical quackery has long been a concern of Congress. A brief perusal of the U.S. Congressional Serial Set, 1817-1994, offers numerous examples.
A Feb. 6, 1849 House Report by Ohio Representative Thomas Owen Edwards, a member of the Select Committee to Prevent Patent Medicines, begins:
That, for many years, a vast system of medical empiricism, sustained by popular credulity and the sanction of the government, has prevailed in this country, to the serious detriment of the public health and morals. Relying on that peculiar element in human nature which attracts mankind to the mysterious, in whatever shape or form presented, the unprincipled and mercenary, with fertile ingenuity, have been daily prostituting a noble science at the shrine of private interest, and to the deadly injury of their fellow men. While foreign dealers and their unscrupulous agents have hitherto flooded the land with impure and adulterated drugs, the untaught and designing of our own community, under the seal of a public office, have been forming the same substances, without regard to the compatibility, into combinations, not only unrecognized but condemned by all the laws of pharmacy. The press teems with advertisements of these catholicons, to the virtues of which no limit is assigned. Proclaimed infallible in diseases manifestly antagonistical, they are sold without remorse, to be administered in ignorance, leaving no trace but an increase of misfortune, and offering no redress for the ruin which they entail.
The report continues, drawing attention to the victims of unprincipled and mercenary practitioners:
It is not the prosperous and educated classes who are so often the subjects of imposture as the poor and illiterate, whose condition is adverse to discrimination, and whose limited means prompt them to seek the relief most confidently, and, at the same time, cheaply promised. By such, the false and treacherous doctrine of “every man his own doctor” is eagerly and credulously accepted, and the sense of the whole medical profession will confirm the opinion of the committee, that to this unfortunate delusion may be traced a vast proportion of the diseases that decimate the poor, and render the trials of destitution still more intolerable.
Other examples of Congressional efforts to regulate unproven health claims include directing the Treasury Department to investigate alleged cures for tuberculosis in 1913 and attempting, in 1916, “to prevent quack doctors and fake dentists, etc., from advertising their fraudulent nostrums, impossible methods, and alleged results.”
In 1928, several bills “to regulate the practice of the healing art to protect the public health in the District of Columbia” were proposed. New York Senator Royal Samuel Copeland, who was also a homeopathic physician, reported on Senate Bill S. 3936:
Recent events have emphasized the very great need for legislation to protect the people of the District from being preyed upon by ignorant, incompetent, untrained, conscienceless persons pretending to cure human ailments. It should be understood that the bill is not needed or intended as protection for the medical profession, as such, for since the year 1896 the laws applying to the District of Columbia have required adequate examination for all physicians and surgeons.
The bill will not prohibit the practice of those who believe in other methods of healing than prescribing of medicine or the performing of surgical operations, but instead it specifically authorizes the practice of so-called “drugless” methods of healing. In other words, the object of the proposed legislation is not to give any monopoly to what are known as “medical doctors,” but to afford ample opportunity, without discrimination, for the practice of any system of therapeutics, provided only that the practitioner shall have such adequate knowledge of the human anatomy and other basic sciences, and of his own particular method of healing, as is necessary to protect the public against injury and fraud.
The vital feature of the bill is the provision for the same examinations in the basic sciences of anatomy, physiology, chemistry, bacteriology, and pathology, to be required of applicants for licenses to practice the healing art. Those who prove that they are possessed of this necessary, fundamental knowledge, will then be examined by separate boards as to their knowledge of medicine or osteopathy and surgery, chiropractic, and various drugless methods of healing.
West Virginia Representative Frank Llewellyn Bowman’s report on House Bill H.R. 12947 included a letter from the Medical Society of the District of Columbia arguing the regulations suggested by Senator Copeland were too watered down:
Should the legislative body pass…bills proposing the organization of three separate boards, there would remain a raft of spurious healers who may still continue to practice untrammeled by the medical practice act of 1896 now in operation in Washington, if they but refrain from expressing their allegiance to a school of osteopathy, chiropractic, and naturopathy.
That this opinion is not an idle supposition but a confirmed fact is readily shown by a perusal of the following partial list of some of the sects and cults which have in recent years developed.
The Act To Regulate the Practice of the Healing Art To Protect the Health in the District of Columbia was approved February 27, 1929, and efforts to amend it began almost immediately. On January 30, 1931, Maryland Representative Frederick Nicholas Zihlman proposed an amendment to clarify the definition of naturopathy:
The Commissioners of the District, in defining the type of work that might be performed by the naturopaths under the act of February 27, 1929, excluded from their definition the right of the naturopaths to diagnose a case or to administer drugs, medicines, or perform surgical operations. The naturopaths are not concerned with the use of drugs, and do not desire to perform surgical operations, nor is it within the scope of their science of practice. They have advised the committee that never, as part of any such treatment, have they used drugs, or ever performed or attempted to perform any surgical operation.
Naturopaths practice and teach that the living body is a vital machine and that retention of waste products in the body, and the non-elimination of drugs are considered the most important underlying causes of disease, so that they could not consistently prescribe them.
Naturopathy, they aver, is a system of natural methods comprising the use of air, earth, sunshine, water, heat and cold, harmonized food, and the use of dehydrated vegetables, herbs, fruits, and any natural modalities, and it is their belief…that they should not be excluded the use of vegetables and herbs, fruits, or any other natural modalities, in their practice.
The political pendulum, often weighted by special interests, continues to sway as Congressional tightrope walkers seek a balance between protecting the public’s freedom to choose their preferred modality of healthcare while restricting the practice of medical quackery and charlatanism that endangers the public’s health.
Researchers interested in additional investigations by the U.S. Congress into alternative medicine and medical quackery will want to read a 1937 report from the Secretary of Agriculture that begins, “During September and October of 1937 at least 73 persons died as a direct result of taking the drug known as ‘Elixir Sulfanilamide.’”
Or the more recent 1974 investigation of medical devices by Massachusetts Senator Edward Kennedy which includes this brief historical overview specific to the subject:
Since ancient times, mankind has used various kinds of gadgetry to cure or ward off serious ailments. Charms and talismans have been used throughout recorded history by people who have attributed magical qualities to them. Inventive individuals have sought to apply the latest scientific discoveries to the alleviation of health conditions. For example, after Benjamin Franklin’s discovery of the electrical force present in lightning, numerous individuals sought to use electrical energy to treat human ailments. At the time of the American Revolution, a gadget known as the Perkins Tractor became quite popular. This device was claimed to be capable of drawing disease out to the body by its electrical current. Although the construction and fantastic claims made for many quack devices over the years often seem quite amusing, use of these devices can have serious health consequences.
Or, finally, the 1984 report by Florida Representative Claude Denson Pepper titled “Quackery, a $10 Billion Scandal,” which begins:
This report marks the culmination of an intensive four-year review of quackery and its impact on the elderly. The inquiry it reflects was initiated after a series of hearings by the House Select Committee on Aging concerning frauds against the elderly which identified health fraud as the single most prevalent and damaging of the frauds directed at the elderly.
As this report details, quackery has traveled far from the day of the pitchman and covered wagon to emerge as big business. Those who orchestrate and profit from the sale and promotion of these useless and often harmful “health” products are no longer quaint and comical figures. They are well organized, sophisticated and persistent.
 “Kansas Surgeon Uses Goat Glands to Cure Sterility,” Fort Worth Star-Telegram (Fort Worth, Texas), Feb. 3, 1920.
 “Goat Glands Used for Restoration of Human Vitality,” The San Diego Union and Daily Bee (San Diego, California), Feb. 6, 1920.
 “Sidelights and Satire,” Morning Oregonian (Portland, Oregon), Feb. 22, 1920.
 “Gland Doctor Defeated in Suit for Libel,” Dallas Morning News (Dallas, Texas), March 30, 1939.
 “Patent Medicines,” Serial Set Vol. No. 545, Session Vol. No.1; 30th Congress, 2nd Session; H.Rpt. 52; February 6, 1849.
 “Alleged Cures for Tuberculosis,” Serial Set Vol. No. 6535, Session Vol. No.20; 63rd Congress, 1st Session; S.Doc. 102; June 18, 1913.
 “Fraudulent Advertising in the District of Columbia,” Serial Set Vol. No. 6903, Session Vol. No.1; 64th Congress, 1st Session; H.Rpt. 169; February 11, 1916.
 “Regulating the Practice of the Healing Art in the District of Columbia,” Serial Set Vol. No. 8830, Session Vol. No.2; 70th Congress, 1st Session; S.Rpt. 755.
 Ibid., p.2
 “Regulating the Practice of the Healing Art in the District of Columbia,” Serial Set Vol. No. 8837, Session Vol. No.3; 70th Congress, 1st Session; H.Rpt. 1310.
 “To Clarify Meaning and Intention of Act ‘To Regulate the Practice of the Healing Art,’” Serial Set Vol. No. 9326, Session Vol. No.1; 71st Congress, 3rd Session; H.Rpt. 2432.
 “Elixir sulfanilamide,” Serial Set Vol. No. 10247, Session Vol. No.10; 75th Congress, 2nd Session; S.Doc. 124.
 “Medical Device Amendments of 1973,” Serial Set Vol. No. 13057-1, Session Vol. No.1-1; 93rd Congress, 2nd Session; S.Rpt. 670.
 “Quackery, a $10 Billion Scandal,” Serial Set Vol. No. 13584; 98th Congress, 2nd Session; H.Doc. 262.