‘Goat-gland’ doctor moved his family to Texas after troubles in Kansas

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First of two columns

I have always been fascinated with Dr. Brinkley, the so-called “goat-gland doctor.” Recently I overheard a conversation claiming that his son was once a student at the former Peacock Military Academy. I thought the Brinkley family lived in Del Rio, so I wonder if you can tell me if that’s true, and did the son graduate from Peacock?

— Peggy Prather

Biographical articles about John Romulus (later Richard) Brinkley (1885-1942) refer to him as a “quack” or “charlatan” as if those were job titles. And they always mention “goat glands,” in reference to his “rejuvenating” transplant surgery, although by the time he moved to Texas in 1932, he was phasing it out in favor of prostate surgery as a cure-all for anything that ailed men below the waist.

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His son’s time at Peacock Military Academy, a respected private school ( covered here June 4, 2022, and June 11, 2022) from 1894 to 1973 in the Woodlawn area, was one of several ties the Brinkley family had to San Antonio.

But first, let’s look at who Brinkley was and how the family ended up in Texas.

Born in North Carolina, Brinkley was the son of a “mountain doctor” (educated through apprenticeship), who impregnated his wife’s niece but took responsibility for their child after her death from tuberculosis. Young Brinkley attended a one-room schoolhouse in Tuckasegee, N.C. In his later years, he said not having graduated from high school kept him out of legitimate medical schools.

Brinkley worked as a letter carrier and telegraph operator before touring as a pitchman with a medicine show. Stints at “eclectic” medical schools — so-called because they taught principles of “regular” medicine along with homeopathy, chiropractic, osteopathy and herbal remedies — followed and got him a medical license in Arkansas, one of only a few states that recognized eclectic training.

Thanks to reciprocal agreements with other states, Brinkley went on to practice in Kansas and then in Texas. He set up his first major practice in the tiny town of Milford, Kan., (population 200) which had failed to attract a more conventionally educated doctor.

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Picking up on the international interest in “gland grafting” — transplanting the glands of monkeys or other animals into humans as a treatment for impotence, sterility or other ailments — Brinkley started doing his goat-gland surgery in 1918, turning Milford into a destination for those seeking a quick fix for old age.

Charging $750 per transplant, Brinkley promoted his services on KFKB, the powerful radio station he established in Milford, and through direct-mail brochures.

In addition, a “Dr. Brinkley Pharmacy” sold prescriptions that were actually colored water, Mercurochrome, horse liniment or repackaged versions of other drugmakers’ products.

He grew wealthy and eventually infamous, drawing the ire of newspaper editors and officials of the American Medical Association, who sought to shut down his fountain-of-youth clinic.

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In 1930, he lost his Kansas medical license, and the Federal Radio Commission shut down his station. So he looked southward and settled on Del Rio, “Queen City of the Rio Grande,” for his next location.

He set up a practice in that city’s Roswell Hotel and a radio station across the river in Villa (later Ciudad) Acuña, where his outrageous claims and over-the-air diagnoses would be beyond the reach of the FRC.

For several years, XER (later XERA) was one of the high-power “border blasters” that sent their broadcasts all over the country. Among the personalities made stars by the station — once the most powerful in the world — were Isabelle and William P. Taylor of San Antonio. They were better known to audiences as mystics Rose Dawn and Koran ( covered here May 20, 2011), who promoted books from their “semireligious” Mayan Order, headquartered at 731 Fredericksburg Road.

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Brinkley was accompanied to Texas by his second wife, Minnie, and their only child, John Richard Brinkley III, known as Johnny Boy.

Born in 1927 — 14 years after his parents’ marriage — Johnny Boy first spoke on the radio at age 2. It just seemed like “talking into a black box that didn’t talk back,” adult Johnny said in an interview included in “Goat Gland Doctor,” a 1986 documentary produced by KTWU Topeka Public Television. (Thanks to Gene Fowler, co-author with Bill Crawford of “Border Radio,” for a link to this film on YouTube.)

Thought by his parents to be unusually intelligent, Johnny Boy went to public school in Milford — but with a private tutor, who was a former school principal, in a separate, otherwise empty classroom. He attended with a bodyguard, who accompanied the little boy out to the playground.

As a young child, Johnny seems to have been included in nearly everything his parents did, from long cruises on their yacht to radio broadcasts to hospital rounds. (In the documentary, the younger Brinkley says he used to go around with the night nurses at his father’s hospital to check patients’ pulses, which, he remembered, “seemed to tickle them.”)

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His relationships with peers weren’t always as pleasant. When the family visited relatives in North Carolina,R. Alton Lee says in “The Bizarre Careers of John R. Brinkley,” Johnny Boy would bring “bags of dimes” as the neighborhood children would charge him to play with them.

In Del Rio, the Brinkleys’ lifestyle became more opulent, with a Spanish-style mansion built on 16 acres on what was then the edge of town. Sometimes painted pink, at other times apple green, it matched the family’s fleet of fancy cars, either fire-engine red or emerald green.

Inside the wrought-iron gates, which spelled out “DOCTOR BRINKLEY,” were guard dogs and “biting geese,” according to a historic marker application that draws on “The Roguish World of Dr. Brinkley,” a biography by Gerald Carson. A further menagerie included peacocks, tortoises and “some kangaroos for a time.”

Inside, it was a “showcase home,” says Lee. There were treasures brought back from the family’s world travels, gold dinnerware and pearl-inlaid tables, four Italian marble fireplaces and a “taproom” that held 250 guests. They had a retired Air Force pilot fly in Lone Star beer from San Antonio to dry Del Rio.

On the ground floor was a room for broadcasting around a long, mahogany table where Brinkley, his wife and son sat while talking over the radio to listeners who wrote in for help with their illnesses or asked the doctor’s son to sing “Happy Birthday” to their children.

Outside, there were tennis courts and a swimming pool decorated with Iron Cross motifs, a nod to Brinkley’s fascination with fascism. There also were lush gardens, where townspeople and tourists came to watch a regular show of fountains that sprayed 30-foot jets of water in concert with colored lights and music from a pipe organ played by Joe O’Toole. O’Toole was a former organist of Grauman’s Chinese Theater in Los Angeles who doubled as a tutor for Johnny Boy, then attending Del Rio public schools.

Next week: Family fortunes shift with a move to San Antonio

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