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Notes on "Charlatan" by Pope Brock

 ·  ☕ 3 min read

Recently I read Charlatan: America’s Most Dangerous Huckster, the Man Who Pursued Him, and the Age of Flimflam by Pope Brock after a recommendation on reddit. I expected it to be a relatively technical book about a series of incidents that steadily regulated the field, but it’s actually a gripping biography of John R. Brinkley, arguably one of the most influential people in American history you’ve probably never heard of, and his career as a quack physician during the Depression.

Among Brinkley’s accomplishments detailed in this book include:

  • Pioneering border blasters, radio stations located just over the Mexican border and broadcasting into the rest of North America (to avoid American legislation)
  • Changing the paradigm of radio advertising
  • Pioneering medical advice via proxy through his radio show Medical Question Box - this feels like the ancestor of today’s Mayo Clinic & other online self-service medical advice websites (both legitimate and not)
  • Being a Nazi supporter
  • Running for governor of Kansas as a write-in candidate, and he would have won if the Kansas AG hadn’t effectively rigged the election to make him lose
    • And being so bad a candidate that the loser of the election declined to call for a recount despite the vote totals of all three candidates being close enough that he could have
  • Being the instigator in the trial that finally brought him down, when he sued Morris Fishbein for libel

Some modern-day parallels are impossible to miss:

  • Donald Trump’s political career
  • Modern-day quack medicine and people’s respect for charismatic figures over accredited doctors (particularly during COVID)
  • Anti-intellectualism
  • Obsession with trying to stay young / to avoid aging

The first few chapters of this book are (imo) a slightly-too-detailed discussion of the (completely bullshit & quite dangerous) practice of goat gland transplantation. After that, we follow both Brinkley and Morris Fishbein, Fishbein being the editor of the JAMA (Journal of the American Medical Association) who took Brinkley down, up until the trial where Brinkley sued Fishbein for libel and lost both the trial and his entire reputation. Brinkley died shortly thereafter.

Often when I see movies mentioned in books I read, I make a point of watching the movie; in this case I watched Buster Keaton’s Cops, which has a passing reference to a goat gland “doctor.” It’s not that interesting a reference other than to see that goat gland surgery was mainstream enough at the time to be included in a Buster Keaton film. Buster Keaton is always enjoyable though.

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River is a developer most at home in MediaWiki and known for building Leaguepedia. She likes cats.

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