Val Verde County Historical Commission
Dr. John R. Brinkley may very well be Del Rio's most famous resident. "Doctor," as he styled himself, was not born in Del Rio or in Texas, but he brought the world to our doorstep.
John Brinkley was born in North Carolina in 1885. He aspired to be a physician, but he seems to have been unwilling to spend years in formal training, as is the custom. Eventually, he found his way into the Eclectic Medical University in Kansas City where, in the time of a month, he earned his degree, which (through reciprocal arrangements) was valid in eight states, including Kansas. In October 1917, Dr. Brinkley arrived in Milford, Kansas, and there he began building an empire.
In tiny Milford, Dr. Brinkley first came up with the idea of implanting slivers of goat gonads into the testicles of human males who had "no pep." The first operation was a success; the gentleman farmer's "pep" returned, and he and his wife were rewarded with a new child nine months later. They named it "Billy." With the assistance of an advertising consultant, "libido-lagging locals" began undergoing the operation, and the medical practice began to take off. "'All energy is sex energy,' Brinkley theorized. 'A man is only as old as his glands." The "Goat-Gland Man" was born.
"Goat-Gland" Brinkley is said to have performed so many operations, Kansas ran low on goats. Brinkley imported goats from Arkansas, and for each of the thousands of operations, he charged $750 cash. Goat glands were used because bull glands were "too strenuous" whereas ape glands were "too short-lived and prone to disease." Brinkley used Toggenburg goats because they were "practically diseaseless and their glands strongly resembled those of Homo sapiens." And he made enough money with these operations that when his engineers told him of the $36,000 cost to build special tubes for his Acuna station's transmitters, he reached into his pocket and "peeled off 36 $1000 bills." His income was said to be in the six-figures; later during the Depression, it may have been seven.
Dr. Brinkley created his own radio station in 1923 to advertise his practice. Radio KFKB, Kansas First, Kansas Best, broadcast Brinkley's medical lectures everyday in addition to musical performances and church services. He read letters from ailing listeners and offered pharmaceutical advice that surely would be illegal today. "If this lady will take [Brinkley powder] numbers fifty and sixty-one and that good old standby of mine, number sixty-seven, for about three months and see if there isn't a big change taking place."
Such advertising or promoting of his products ran Brinkley afoul of the U.S. government's Federal Radio Commission. The government revoked his license to broadcast, and by 1930 after a fight in the courts, Brinkley was off the air.
"Young, ambitious A.C. Easterling, newly inducted secretary-manager of the Del Rio Chamber of Commerce, was one of those who read about Dr. Brinkley's predicament. The local area, known as the Wool and Mohair Capital of the World, had recently witnessed the failure of the Del Rio Bank. Easterling was eager to rejuvenate the borderland economy, and Brinkley's station meant business. The secretary-manager dispatched a letter to the famous physician, inviting him to visit and inspect the Queen City of the Rio Grande. Though he probably didn't realize it at the time, Easterling, with this invitation, would bring publicity to Del Rio beyond the wildest dreams of any border booster. It would also open the door to one of the strangest chapters in the history of mass communication."
After Doctor ran afoul of the American Medical Association (at the same time his radio troubles began and for his unusual medical procedures), he decided to get into government by running for governor of the state of Kansas in 1930. "Let's pasture the goats on the statehouse lawn," the Independent write-in candidate campaigned. He lost that race due to questionable vote counting. Brinkley responded by building Radio XER in Villa Acuna, across the Rio Grande from Del Rio. Brinkley ran again in 1932 and lost again. This second loss (a third happened in 1934) prompted Brinkley to leave Kansas entirely and move his clinic to Del Rio.
Shortly before he moved to Del Rio, Brinkley adopted new, non-surgical procedures; he also opened a clinic in the Roswell Hotel, occupying several floors of the newly built establishment. Brinkley had abandoned the goat gland operations during the summer of 1933 because, he declared, "we have commercial glandular preparations that we can buy on the market and inject to take the place of the glandular transplantation." Brinkley was injecting his patients with "mercurochrome"--which turned out to be water with indigo coloring. He also injected patients with testosterone and sometimes hydrochloric acid diluted in water.
The move to Del Rio was a significant relocation, for Brinkley's people and Del Rioans. "A caravan rolled toward the border, trucks filled with hospital and office equipment and an auto convoy of thirty families of Brinkley employees. Doctor leased several floors of the Roswell Hotel in downtown Del Rio to house the Brinkley Hospital and leased the entire basement for x-ray equipment. As the ever watchful American consul at Piedras Negras reported, 'The most prominent judge of Del Rio gave a very big reception and tea honoring Doctor and Mrs. Brinkley at his home There is great enthusiasm in the town for him." That would make sense, considering Brinkley and his various business operations employed eighty-three people in Del Rio and is supposed to have supported three-thousand in Acuna. Eventually, Doctor expanded his medical practice by opening a second clinic in San Juan, in the Rio Grande Valley.
Del Rio welcomed Brinkley and his family. A new hanger was built at the airfield because Brinkley had his own airplane. And when he first arrived, the city threw a party in his honor. Before Brinkley the only radio Del Rio had seen was a homemade set of copper coils around an oatmeal carton using an old phonograph horn as a speaker. Its broadcast range was measured in feet; Brinkley's was measured in hundreds and even thousands of miles. Brinkley's eventual three-hundred person payroll ran twenty-thousand dollars per month, and he was known for donating to many charity causes on both sides of the border. "Del Rio thrived during the depths of the Depression."12 While "thrive" may be an overstatement, any town surely would have welcomed that size an enterprise during the Depression.
The Brinkleys also made a splash in Del Rio's social scene. Brinkley joined the Masons, Rotarians, Shriners, and Woodmen of the World. The family also joined the Episcopal Methodist Church. In some ways they even upset the social structure of the community. They were not ranchers or merchants; they were not government folks or the segregated Mexican-American working class. School children were surprised by the large infusion of outside blood sitting in the classrooms and walking the halls. The school children were probably very surprised when Doctor's 788-pound stuffed tuna showed up after one of his many oceanic fishing trips. The record tuna was hung in the high school which also received a cash donation. The public library and other organizations also received large chunks of cash on occasion.
Brinkley's operation brought to Del Rio prosperity and glamour during the Great Depression. "Doctor" and his family spent money "wildly." They also provided many local residents with regular employment. With nationwide advertising, people came from all over just to spend their money in Del Rio. Other than the railroad and the military post at Fort Clark, Brinkley radio and its related operations were the biggest payrolls between San Antonio and EI Paso prior to the Second World War.
John Brinkley and his son Johnnyboy have brought in a large tuna in this postcard scene.
The living in those days was good. Doctor even ran for President of the United States (sort of...see the appendix for details). However, the good days did not last. Brinkley left Del Rio in 1938 with his career already in decline. He moved to Arkansas after several losing Texas lawsuits (from dissatisfied customers and the U.S. government) and suffering from the establishment of a cut-rate competitor, but he commuted back to the city on Thursdays to broadcast on XERA. He opened two hospitals in Little Rock, but judgements resulting from lawsuits began eating into his fortune. Brinkley lost a local libel suit against "longtime Nemesis Dr. Morris Fishbein who had written two articles saying Brinkley was a quack who used high-pressure methods to obtain his patients." At the trial Brinkley wore his hundred-thousand dollar diamonds. He also sponsored a publicity contest. Contestants were to complete the sentence: "I consider Dr. Brinkley the world's foremost prostate surgeon because _______"; and XERA offered the prize. But he still lost. This 1939 trial was held in the federal courthouse in Del Rio; Brinkley appealed but lost the appeal as well. He also lost court cases in Arkansas, and the Internal Revenue Service filed a "Texas-sized claim" against him. After "fruitful conversations" between American and Mexican communications officials and the signing of an international convention regulating broadcasts, XERA was "deleted" from the realm of Mexican broadcasting. The American government agreed to clear six frequencies and make them available to Mexico. While in Mexico City to try to renew his permit, Dr. Brinkley received a phone call from his station manager: "Did you know that the Mexican army is tearing down the station right now?" On March 29, 1941, radioman Brinkley was off the air -- permanently.
In his last days Dr. Brinkley tried putting several last-ditch plans into effect. He consulted psychic
Rose Dawn about running for the presidency of the United States. The reading was apparently bad, but he did file for U.S. senator from the state of Texas. He also announced that he was going to move his clinic back to Del Rio. The return never happened; Brinkley suffered a blood clot in August 1941 and lost his leg. Convalescing in his San Antonio second-home, he saw his last on May 26 of the next year.
Brinkley died in 1942, but his legend, like the echoes of distant signals, lived on. His success had inspired other borderblaster stations like those in Piedras Negras and Reynosa, XENT also in Reynosa and XERB near Tijuana. These "X-stations" were popular, at least in part, because they could reach the rural areas of American that urban stations could not.
"Even today, if you ask an oldtimer if he remembers Dr. Brinkley, the response will likely be, 'Oh, you mean the goat-gland man.' And whenever and wherever performers and fans gather together to reminisce about the good old days of radio, someone whose eyes sparkle as if viewing a photograph of long- remembered youth will tell the familiar joke: 'What's the fastest thing on four legs? A goat passing the Brinkley Hospital."
The goats may not have been happy, but Del Rio had reason to be. Brinkley was the biggest thing going during those years of the Great Depression. With Radio XERA calling out to the nation and the old Southern Pacific Railroad bringing mail and patients, both bringing dollars into town, Brinkley carried Del Rio through those hard economic times. And so he is well remembered. And the Val Verde County Historical Commission is ready to tell his story to another generation of Texans. Conman, charlatan, vaudeville promoter, entrepreneur, philanthropist; John R. Brinkley was many things to many people, and John Brinkley was all of those things in Del Rio, Texas.
(footnotes have been deleted from this version of the text)
Gerald Carson, The Roguish World of Doctor Brinkley, New York: Rinehart & Company, Inc., 1960.
Gene Fowler and Bill Crawford, Border Radio, Austin: Texas Monthly Press, 1987.
Gene Fowler and Bill Crawford, Border Radio, Austin: University of Texas Press, 2002 (revised edition).
Nancy Krzton, "Dr. Brinkley Era Put Del Rio on Map," Del Rio News-Herald, March 20, 1979, 7D.
Harold Mehling, The Scandalous Scamps, New York: Henry Holt and Company, 1959.
Leslie Schmidt to Doug Braudaway, interview on April 15, 1998.
Ron Strickland, Texans: Oral Histories from the Lone Star State, New York: Paragon House, 1991.