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Sometimes, the wrong answers are needed to guide people in the direction of the right questions, and nowhere is this more true than in the field of men’s health and erectile dysfunction.

The development of sildenafil, one of the frontline treatments for ED, emerged as the result of a failed attempt to find a treatment for angina.

It was the wrong answer for this particular heart condition, but its most pronounced side effect led to the right question being asked about whether ED was more easily treated than anyone believed possible at the time. The result is easily available and affordable.

However, eight decades before this, a somewhat infamous quack had an answer for ED that was wrong beyond comprehension, but did it also unintentionally create the idea that the condition then known as impotence was not a character failing but a condition that could be treated?

Wrong Answer, Right Question

Despite claiming to be a doctor, John Brinkley never completed medical school, having completed three years of training at Chicago’s Bennet Medical College and spent $500 on a diploma from the “Eclectic Medical University” allegedly based in Kansas City, Missouri.

Whilst such a “degree” would not be worth the paper it was printed on today, in 1913 it was enough to practise medicine in eight states, which allowed him to get his start as the on-site doctor for a Swift & Company meat processing plant in Kansas City.

In 1918, he opened a clinic in Milford, Kansas to become the town doctor, and whilst his degree was already dubious and his later exploits would become infamous, he was apparently exceptionally good at nursing victims of the Great Influenza pandemic back to health.

It was here that someone would ask the right question and he would give the wrong answer, although the exact details about where both came from is a matter of some conflict.

According to Mr Brinkley himself, as described in a biography he had commissioned about his life, a patient entered his clinic asking if he had any treatments available for someone who, in Mr Brinkley’s words, was “sexually weak”.

Mr Brinkley joked that a pair of goat glands could help him, but the patient begged him to at least give it a try, paying $150 for him to do so.

By contrast, the son of the patient in an interview with The Kansas City Star claimed that Mr Brinkley was the one to offer his father money to go along with the experiment.

In practice, surgically implanting goat glands into the testicle sac of a male patient (or near the ovaries of a female patient) will not do anything for the reproductive system; the foreign matter would be rejected and absorbed into the body over time.

At best it would have no result or potentially a placebo effect. However, at worst, the poor operating environment, dubious training and an alleged propensity to operate whilst under the influence could potentially lead to serious infections, complications and even death.

Luckily for him, his first patient not only survived the procedure but his wife gave birth to a baby boy not long after he opened up the procedure to other people for $750 per treatment.

At one point he even performed the operation on one of the editors of the Los Angeles Times, and whilst an attempt to move to California was thwarted by regulatory authorities already investigating his dubious medical history, he would adopt the medium of radio as a medium to advertise his treatments.

This was, at best, morally dubious and at worst a violation of international broadcast treaties, but he had a skill of appealing to the egos of his listeners and offering a solution to a condition that at the time was seen as incurable.

Given the choice between accepting ED and taking a treatment that seemingly had at least one successful outcome, people would take their chances with Mr Brinkley’s treatments and patent medicines.

The result was seen not only in Mr Brinkley’s wealth but in the town of Milford, which would be electrified, have a new sewerage system, pavements, a post office, apartments for employees, temporary accommodation for patients and even a bandstand.

House Of Cards

By contrast, the American Medical Association were intensively investigating him, with Morris Fishbein, in particular, keen to expose him as a fraud, although it would ultimately take until 1930 for the Kansas Medical Board to revoke his licence to practise medicine.

Half a year later, in what is a landmark broadcasting legal case in the United States, he would also lose his broadcasting licence due to his broadcast of advertising, obscene material and a radio segment that was also used to sell medicines and goat gland treatments.

He would later claim that injections of “mercurochrome” a mercury-based antiseptic, could help restore virility as well, with the same level of efficacy.

He attempted to get it back by running for Governor of Kansas, but despite coming close thanks to a campaign rich in publicity stunts, a technicality with write-in candidate rules meant that he placed second to Harry Hines Woodring.

After losing multiple elections he moved to Del Rio, Texas, near the Mexican border so he could operate a border blaster radio service in Mexico to try and get around the loss of his licence, at one point having the most powerful radio station in the world that could allegedly be heard as far north as Canada on a clear night.

Whilst he remained wealthy throughout the 1930s, a series of damning articles by Morris Fishbein, a failed libel lawsuit against him, a tax fraud investigation and many consequential lawsuits lead to him declaring bankruptcy in 1941.

Whilst John Brinkley is remembered as a charlatan and a fraud, with clear and palpable harm caused by his treatments, he was, somewhat inadvertently, the first person to attempt a medical treatment for erectile dysfunction.

Whilst his motivations were cynical and his ideas were ludicrous, it would only take a few decades after his death for serious treatments for ED to emerge.

The penis pump would be the first ED treatment to receive FDA approval, Giles Brindley would infamously demonstrate the effects of papaverine injections in 1983, and PDE5 inhibitors would eventually transform ED into a condition with an easy, reliable solution.