John R. Brinkley: The Goat Testicle Millionaire
Nuts!, a new documentary film by Penny Lane, focuses on John R. Brinkley, a "doctor" who amassed a fortune by surgically inserting pieces of a goats' testicles to treat impotence in men.
How did a man born into poverty become one of America’s most polarizing millionaires? And how did history forget him just as quickly as he rose? The story of “Doctor” John R. Brinkley is being told by a new documentary that renews his story: Nuts!. According to the film, Brinkley fundamentally transformed the workings of radio and advertising in North America. He was even instrumental to cultivating the popularity of country music.
Much of Brinkley’s fortune, influence, and success followed from fraudulent treatments he offered under the guise of being a doctor, an identity he assumed after purchasing a certificate from a diploma mill. The ailments he sought to treat often had one of two common characteristics: they were either sexual issues or conditions that were lethal and untreatable (at least at the time). The title of the film (and the focus of the trailer) alludes to one of his earliest and most peculiar schemes: inserting pieces of goats’ testicles into the scrota of men to cure impotence. Unsurprisingly, this practice was ineffective. Nevertheless, it became lucrative and helped to cultivate a massive, loyal following. Afterward, Brinkley would successfully sell numerous costly treatments that had no demonstrated effects. A question naturally emerges: how did he nevertheless manage to become an influential, polarizing millionaire?
Perhaps the answer lies in the kinds of ailments he purported to cure. Sexual practices were not widely discussed in Brinkley’s contemporary America. Thus, a sense of cultural opprobrium plausibly silenced individuals who may have otherwise spoke out to say, for instance, that inserting a piece of a testicle (from a personally picked goat) did not help to conceive a child. A consequence of this embedded censorship would be that false positives of people who, by mere coincidence, were able to conceive a child afterward would shape the dominant public view of the treatment. On the other hand, treatments for lethal diseases would be hard for the fatally uncured to speak out against.
How Brinkley managed to persuade people to opt into his treatments may still seem to be a puzzling question. However, his practices conform strongly to some characteristics Maria Konnikova attributes to successful con-artists. In particular, Brinkley exploited the trust of his patients by providing direct solutions to areas in their lives characterized by deep uncertainty. Seeing answers and meaning where there are none, Konnikova notes, is deeply embedded in our neurological systems. Moreover, she observes that overriding them with attentive discernment is not easy.
Reflecting on Brinkley’s career, we are then left with the challenge of possibly having to accept that there are no easy means to discern other cons and frauds as they emerge in our lives.
Swipe right to make the connections that could change your career.
Swipe right. Match. Meet over coffee or set up a call.
No, we aren't talking about Tinder. Introducing Shapr, a free app that helps people with synergistic professional goals and skill sets easily meet and collaborate.
In his final years, Martin Luther King, Jr. become increasingly focused on the problem of poverty in America.
- Despite being widely known for his leadership role in the American civil rights movement, Martin Luther King, Jr. also played a central role in organizing the Poor People's Campaign of 1968.
- The campaign was one of the first to demand a guaranteed income for all poor families in America.
- Today, the idea of a universal basic income is increasingly popular, and King's arguments in support of the policy still make a good case some 50 years later.
She met mere mortals with and without the Vatican's approval.
- For centuries, the Virgin Mary has appeared to the faithful, requesting devotion and promising comfort.
- These maps show the geography of Marian apparitions – the handful approved by the Vatican, and many others.
- Historically, Europe is where most apparitions have been reported, but the U.S. is pretty fertile ground too.
For Damien Echols, tattoos are part of his existential armor.
- In prison Damien Echols was known by his number SK931, not his name, and had his hair sheared off. Stripped of his identity, the only thing he had left was his skin.
- This is why he began tattooing things that are meaningful to him — to carry a "suit of armor" made up the images of the people and objects that have significance to him, from his friends to talismans.
- Echols believes that all places are imbued with divinity: "If you interact with New York City as if there's an intelligence behind... then it will behave towards you the same way."
SMARTER FASTER trademarks owned by The Big Think, Inc. All rights reserved.