In Depression-era Kansas, small-town doctor J R Brinkley made a fortune from his novel method of treating impotence. It was startling, sensationally popular… and a total con. His strange career has inspired filmmaker Penny Lane (right) to create a documentary, NUTS! The Brinkley Story, which uses animation and original footage to examine the enduring appeal of medical charlatans.
Penny was named one of Filmmaker Magazine’s ’25 New Faces of Independent Film’ in 2012 and is also a video artist, writer, curator and professor of film, video and new media art. I asked her to tell me more about NUTS! and its intriguing protagonist.
QD: Welcome to The Quack Doctor! Many of our readers will have heard of the infamous John Romulus Brinkley but, in a nutshell, who was he and what did he do?
PL: Thanks, Caroline, I’m so honored to be here!
Brinkley was an obscure Kansas doctor in 1917 when he ‘discovered’ that he could cure impotent men by transplanting goat testicles into them. I say ‘discovered’ because, well… maybe I should say he ‘claimed’ he could. In any event, in an era where impotence was considered incurable by your run-of-the-mill allopathic doctors, tens of thousands of men rushed in to give it a try. Brinkley became quite wealthy, quite famous, and of course, controversial. The goat gland surgery was just the beginning of his long and crazy story, which also includes: pioneering the use of junk mail, infomercials, advertorials and outlaw radio; running for (and winning, sort of, but not really) the Governorship of Kansas; and annoying the heck out of the authorities in general. He was a great success story, and also probably a sociopath.
How does NUTS! portray Brinkley’s story and where is the film currently up to in the production process?
NUTS! tells Brinkley’s story with animated reenactments, never-before-seen archival footage, hundreds of photographs, clippings, ads, etc., and interviews with some pretty funny historians. I think it’s a suitably colorful and eclectic way to bring this wacky story to life. I have completed a complete edit of the film and I’m raising funds now to finish it (primarily to complete the animations, which are gorgeous, time consuming and a bit expensive).
What first sparked your interest in Brinkley, and how did you go about researching the film?
I found out about Brinkley in 2008 by reading Pope Brock’s wonderful book Charlatan, which I picked up by chance at a local library. I read a couple of other books about Brinkley, and then embarked upon a multi-year archival research mission which took me to Kansas, Texas, Arkansas and Washington DC, digging up a few clippings here and a box of photos there, and so on. I knew I had a great story and I had the basic arc of it in mind, but was also very guided by the visual and audio material I found along the way.
What was Brinkley’s motivation for promoting the goat testicle operation? Do you think he ever genuinely believed that it would work?
It’s a great question. I believe Brinkley knew that what he was doing was not quite what he said he was doing; he spewed a lot of hokum about connecting blood vessels and things like that that he had to know was false. But at the same time, he had all these ‘satisfied customers,’ so many of whom were telling him that he had cured them, so I’m certain he understood the placebo effect in practice, even if not in theory. So, I’m sure he understood that he both was and was not helping people, and to be able to sleep at night, I assume he focused on the former and put the latter out of his mind (or, as I said before, perhaps he truly didn’t care about others and was a sociopath!). His motivation was almost certainly to make money, plain and simple, and I’m sure he enjoyed the idea that others liked him, if that was a happy accident of his money making scheme.
What methods did Brinkley use to attract patients and convince them to go ahead with this somewhat daunting procedure?
What methods didn’t he use?? First, he hired a good advertising firm, and they made some of the first ‘advertorials,’ which were ads designed to look like articles. They dumped an untold number of flyers in the mail; again, if Brinkley didn’t quite invent junk mail himself, he came close. He published a series of ‘Doctor Books,’ which looked a lot like educational textbooks but had the added benefit of being essentially long-form ads for his hospital.
He built himself a series of increasingly powerful radio stations, over which he would talk for hours, his deep voice seductively crooning to the masses through their novel new radio receivers. Using all of these methods, Brinkley essentially followed the quack’s handbook: appealing to people’s distrust of and dissatisfaction with run-of-the-mill medicine, making use of anecdotal evidence in the form of patient testimonials, lots of information and diagrams that sure sounded like science! But more than anything else, Brinkley understood that the best way to get people to part with their money was to tell a really good story – a story that people want to hear, a story that they want to believe. He really knew how to give good entertainment value, above all else; even if you thought he was full of baloney, his radio station, ads and Doctor Books were still the most entertaining around!
NUTS! sounds as though it’s going to be very funny and entertaining too! How do you think humour can enhance our understanding of the past?
Well, I am quite passionate about educating people about pseudoscience and quackery of all kinds. But there’s only so much one can do when one is being explicitly ‘educational’ in tone. I’m doing a little bit of what Brinkley did… which is to spin a really great yarn as a way of keeping you with me, as a way of ‘selling’ you what I want to sell you (er, except what I’m selling is a message about how a quack operates and why we all keep falling for them!). Humor is a great rhetorical tool! It really matters to me that audiences will enjoy the heck out of watching this film, but will also walk away having learned a lot about these things.
One thing that particularly impresses me about the film is that it doesn’t poke fun at Brinkley’s patients. It strikes me that this is a story about human nature and how we are all susceptible to believing what we want to believe.
It would be easy to laugh at the folks who fell for Brinkley’s con. I have no interest in that, because we’re all susceptible for stuff like this. I want the viewer to be seduced by Brinkley themselves, so they can feel what it feels like to be taken in by someone like this. You’re right that confirmation bias (believing what we want to believe) is a major part of how we process information and make decisions. While I wish we could somehow overcome this bias and be more logical, I don’t think it’s possible; I guess I think that pointing out the existence of confirmation bias is the best I can do. This is definitely a big theme and goal of the project.
If readers of The Quack Doctor want to support the film, what should they do?
Right now, I am raising the funds I need to finish NUTS! Through October 14, 2014, I am running a Kickstarter campaign. This is an innovative and wonderful way to connect with people who find the project worthwhile and who feel it resonates with their own values and interests. The way Kickstarter works is that people can ‘pledge’ at any level (from $1.00 to $10,000) and receive lots of goodies in exchange: signed DVDs, digital downloads, prize-winning goat ribbons and trophies, a cameo in the film, tickets to the premiere, a Producer credit, and so on. Kickstarter is all or nothing, meaning we lose everything we’ve raised unless we meet our goal! I raised money this way with my last film (Our Nixon) and I have to say, it’s so wonderful, because you meet the best people in the process.
Well, I’m very much looking forward to seeing the finished film! All the best with the Kickstarter campaign and thank you for visiting The Quack Doctor.