Watching the classic American movie classic The Wizard of Oz on TV over and over again during the last half century this examiner gradually came to a realization: The biggest villain in the movie isn’t the Wicked Witch of the West—it’s the Wizard himself.
While children are naturally more frightened of the Wicked Witch—with her crystal ball, her evil cackle, and her flying monkeys—we grow up to learn that it’s the “wizards” in life we should fear most. The product huckster and the medical quack—preying on the fears, pain and misfortunes of others—are much more likely to do damage than any scary bogeymen.
In the movie, the Wizard consistently gives Dorothy false hope and false promise, and then makes the young girl and her companions fight his battle against the Wicked Witch. The Wizard, an “old Kansas man himself” (who’s actually Dorothy’s dream version of her real-life encounter with the fraudulent salesman Professor Marvel), ultimately fails to transport Dorothy back to her Kansas farm in his hot-air balloon.
Near the end of the movie, when the Wizard is exposed as a fraud, the angry Scarecrow denounces him: “You humbug!” The Wizard meekly acknowledges, “You’re right, I am a humbug.”
L. Frank Baum’s 1900 book The Wonderful Wizard of Oz added a peculiarly American twist to the classic European fairytale: the American humbug. The Wizard is not a real wizard, but a lost American balloonist who uses stage tricks—hanging a disembodied head by a wire, for example—to fool people into thinking he is powerful.
In the early 20th century the wide-open western prairie of Kansas was rife with snake-oil salesmen and confidence men. This era of scoundrels reached a peak in the 1930s during the depression, when a Kansas humbug became known as America’s greatest conman.
John R. Brinkley (1885–1942) was a controversial American medical doctor who experimented with transplantation of goat glands into humans as a means of curing male impotence in clinics across several states. Though stripped of his license to practice medicine in some states, the charismatic Brinkley found a home in Milford, Kansas, where he launched two campaigns for governor—one of which was nearly successful.
As recounted in his self-commissioned biography, Brinkley struck upon the idea of transplanting goat testicles into men when a patient came to him to ask if he could fix someone who was “sexually weak.” Brinkley joked that the patient would have no problem if he had “a pair of those goat glands in you.” The patient then begged Brinkley to try the operation, which Brinkley did, for $150. (The patient’s son later told The Kansas City Star that Brinkley had in fact offered to pay his father “handsomely” if he’d go along with the experiment.)
At his clinic, Brinkley began to perform more operations he claimed would restore male virility and fertility through implanting the testicular glands of goats in the testicles of his male patients at a cost of $750 per operation (about $8,700 today). Brinkley also implanted the goat glands, which the human body always rejected, into the abdomens of women, near the ovaries.
Brinkley’s medical training was negligible. He failed to graduate from the Kansas City Eclectic Medical University, a less-than-reputable diploma mill of a medical school that advocated botanical and herbal homeopathy. He frequently operated while intoxicated. And, before the age of antibiotics, he kept a less-than sterile operating environment, causing many patients to die from infection. Brinkley was sued more than a dozen times for wrongful death between 1930 and 1941.
In 1923 Brinkley built his own radio station in Milford, hustling his pseudoscience over the airwaves and providing an outlet for astrologers and country music. Dr. Morris Fishbein, the buoyant, compulsively curious and sometimes controversial editor of the Journal of the American Medical Association became Brinkley’s nemesis. Fishbein took aim at Brinkley in JAMA, lay publications, and pamphlets distributed by the thousands. Even after the Kansas State Medical Board finally yanked his medical license, Brinkley nearly became the governor of Kansas.
According to Charlatan, Pope Brock’s 2008 biography, Brinkley established his medical practice at exactly the moment when America was ready for him. “There has probably never been a more quack-prone and quack-infested country than the United States,” Brock wrote.
Brinkley’s fall from fame and fortune came as precipitously as his rise. At the height of his career he had amassed millions of dollars and a fleet of fancy cars, but yet died sick and nearly penniless, as a result of the large number of malpractice, wrongful death, and fraud suits brought against him.
If there’s a moral to this tale, it’s this: Pay very close attention to the man behind the curtain.