Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Heart of a Goat

The remarkable events I'm going to chronicle here would likely never have unfolded, in 1917, if young Dr. John Brinkley had not been hired as house doctor at the Swift meatpacking company, located in Kansas. He was dazzled by the vigorous mating activities of the goats destined for the slaughterhouse. A couple of years later, after Brinkley had gone into private practice in Milford, Kansas, a farmer named Stittsworth came to see him. Stittsworth complained of a sagging libido. Recalling the goats' frantic antics, the doctor semi-jokingly told his patient that what he needed was some goat glands. Stittsworth quickly responded, "So, Doc, put 'em in. Transplant 'em."

Brinkley went to work, implanting a bit of goat gonad in Stittsworth's testicle. Within weeks the farmer was back to thank the doctor for giving him back his libido. And when his wife gave birth to a boy, whom they appropriately named Billy, Stittsworth spread the word about Brinkley. Soon Brinkley's business was booming. The testimonials poured in and so did the money. Brinkley was charging $750 per transplant, and he couldn't keep up with the demand. All men needed the Brinkley operation, he declared, but the procedure was most suited to the intelligent and least suited to the "stupid type." This, of course, ensured that few of his patients would admit that they had not benefited from the operation.

Thanks to Joe Schwarcz, Ph.D. for his article on John R. Brinkley.

I was reminded of Bulgakov’s Heart of a Dog--apparently what is satire for some is real life for others. Performing over 16,000 goat testicle transplants would have made anyone famous, but Brinkley didn’t stop there. He went on to a lucrative radio career and almost became governor of Kansas.

But back to Bulgakov…Schwarcz’s article includes some information on similar experimentation in Europe starting around the 1880s.

Charles-Edouard Brown-Sequard, a noted French physiologist, had shocked the medical community by injecting himself with the crushed testicles of young dogs and guinea pigs. Afterwards he claimed that he had regained the physical stamina and intellectual vigor of his youth. Many men availed themselves of La Méthode Sequardienne, but once the placebo effect was filtered out little remained. In Vienna physiologist Eugen Steinach proposed that youthful vitality could be restored by increasing levels of testosterone. The easiest way to do this, Steinach said, was through vasectomy. Sperm production wasted testosterone, and if the channel leading from the testes to the ejaculatory duct were tied off, then blood levels of testosterone would rise. Brinkley may also have heard of the work of Serge Voronoff, a French doctor who was stirring up a storm of controversy with his experimental gland transplants. Voronoff had been a physician in the court of the King of Egypt, and there he had spent a great deal of time treating the court eunuchs, who suffered from a variety of illnesses. He hypothesized that maintaining active genital glands was the secret to health. As proof, he cited his experiments with an aging ram into which he had transplanted the testicles of a young lamb. The ram's wool got thicker, and his sexual vigor returned. Voronoff then went on to transplant bits of monkey testes into aging men; he claimed success, although he could offer no scientific validation of his claim. In America the stage was set for the meteoric rise of J.R. Brinkley.

Look up any of the names mentioned in the article for some fun reading. For some more trivia, Brinkley indirectly contributed a term to the film industry. A goat gland film is “an already completed silent film to which one or more talkie sequences were added in an effort to make the otherwise redundant film more suitable for release in the radically altered market conditions” in the late 1920s during the transition from silent movies to “talkies”.

Q: What's the fastest thing on four legs?
A: A goat passing Dr. Brinkley's hospital!
(a popular joke of the time)

R. Alton Lee's The Bizarre Careers of John R. Brinkley (University Press of Kentucky, 2002) goes into detail on Brinkley's life. For context on Brinkley's radio days, check out Border Radio: Quacks, Yodelers, Pitchmen, Psychics, and Other Amazing Broadcasters of the American Airwaves by Gene Fowler and Bill Crawford (Texas Monthly Press, 1987). And of course, there's Bulgakov...


Fred said...

Excellent timing. I just finished reading Bulgakov's _Heart of a Dog_ last week.

The blurb calls it a satire on the scientific society, but I think the connection to politics is just as strong, if not stronger. The idea that it might be a satire on Soviet Society during the 1920s isn't even mentioned. I wonder why.

Dwight said...

I can't imagine not mentioning the political satire--that's the heart of the book (no pun intended).

Glad the timing worked out. It's a fun book, isn't it? If you get a chance to see the movie version of it that I reviewed, get your hands on it. Extremely well done.

Fred said...

Thanks for the tip. I wasn't aware there was a film made of it. I'll look around for it.

Dwight said...

See this post for movie info. It may not be easy to find, but definitely worth the effort.