Dr. John Romulus Brinkley (1885-1942) was the inventor of a popular goat testicle impotence cure, early radio pioneer, governor of Kansas, creator of the infomercial, one of the 20th century’s most amazing quacks and—most recently—the subject of my film, NUTS! The Brinkley Story.
NUTS! traces Dr. Brinkley’s rise from poverty and obscurity to the heights of celebrity, wealth and influence in Depression-era America. Along the way, he amasses an enormous fortune, racks up a roster of celebrity clients, hosts epic parties, disrupts more industries than I can count, and annoys the heck out of the establishment until finally the federal government creates regulations for medicine, advertising, and radio so they can shut him down for good. How he does it, and what happens when it all comes crashing down, is the story of NUTS!
Once all the twists and turns of Brinkley’s story are revealed, the movie more than earns its title. It’s a tragic tale of the American Dream (starring a sociopath). But it’s also a cautionary tale about the seductive and dangerous power of the charlatan. So listen closely, here is how the story begins…
On 1902, a shoeless boy from the Great Smoky Mountains stood before the dean at Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine. The boy said his name was John Romulus Brinkley, he was 17 years old, and he wanted to be a doctor. The dean surveyed the boy and cruelly laughed. He said the boy had better run on home to North Carolina, because doctors weren’t made from people like Brinkley.
But 15 years later, Brinkley had a diploma from the Eclectic Medical University in Kansas City—a more progressive school than Johns Hopkins—and hung up his shingle in Milford, Kansas. There wasn’t much to Milford, a dusty little place with a couple hundred people, but the young “Doc” Brinkley was determined to make a go of it.
Just a few days after he arrived, a farmer named Bill Stittsworth dropped in on the doctor. Eyes averted, Stittsworth asked if there was anything Doc Brinkley could do for…“you know… sexual weakness?” Brinkley explained that despite all the recent advances in medicine, there still was nothing to be done for impotence. Stittsworth sighed and gazed out the window, whereupon he noticed a male goat mounting a female goat with extreme vigor. “It’s too bad I don’t have billy goat nuts.” Rueful laughter from both men turned to thoughtfulness in Stittsworth. “Say, Doc! Why don’t you just put some goat nuts in me? Graft ‘em on, like the way I graft pound sweet on an apple stray!”
Shocked, Brinkley demurred. Who ever heard of such a thing! Transplanting goat testicles into men to try to cure their impotence? It would be unethical! “Well, Doc, they can’t be worse than the nuts I got,” said Stittsworth, growing stubborn. “Just give it a try, and if it don’t work, I sure as heck won’t tell nobody.”
Now, nine months later, Stittsworth’s wife gave birth to a healthy baby boy named Billy (after the goat). Brinkley hadn’t thought it would work…but it did! And he realized he had to tell the world about this miracle cure, discovered quite by accident but proving successful with each impotent man he operated on. “The proof is in the results,” Brinkley said, when confronted by the mainstream doctors who said his cure couldn’t possibly work. “Just ask my patients and they can tell you whether it works. What could be more simple?”
This is a fantastic origin story. And that’s exactly why you should be suspicious of it. Because quacks have been using fantastic origin stories exactly like this for as long as suckers have existed. (See: Airborne.) It’s got all the essential elements: a reluctant hero who stumbles upon a miracle cure “they” don’t want you to know about, the anecdotal testimonies of satisfied customers.
I include in NUTS! all of the stories Brinkley told about himself, despite the fact that it’s hard to know how to parse the truths from the half-truths from the straight-up baloney when your main character is a conman. I do this because the lies that conmen tell are the most important things about them.
Brinkley’s life story, with its epic and colorful dimensions, is a legitimately Great American Story. But a great story isn’t enough to keep me working on a film for almost seven years. I’ve never been able to let the Brinkley story go because I passionately want to educate people about quacks and why we fall for them.
Humor and historical distance allow me to illustrate how a quack operates in a way that I could not with a contemporary example. For example: I could make a film exposing why Current Treatment X is a sham, but it is likely that a chunk of my audience will already believe in X, and therefore won’t be receptive to the message. Because all quacks operate using the exact same methods, which are enumerated with extreme detail in NUTS!, the Brinkley story can be and will be recognized by viewers in their own time, on their own terms, all around them.
In the age of the Internet and in our lax regulatory environment, there are more quacks than ever before. And while they may be funny at times (see: goat testicle impotence cure), quacks are a menace to society. At their best, they take the money of healthy people for their nostrums; at their worst, they prey on the sick and the desperate, who may turn away from the real treatments they need to stay alive.
Right now, I am raising the funds needed to finish NUTS! and bring its sneaky but important message to audiences. For the film to work, it needs to be seductive and entertaining as hell. I’m raising the funds I need to finish the animations and make sure they’re totally beautiful, to record the original score with awesome musicians in good studios and to hire an editor. I’m using Kickstarter because I believe that there are a lot of people who are as passionate as I am about ridding the world of quacks—at least as many as those who just want to see this crazy story come to life.
See the NUTS! Kickstarter here.