Did you hear the one about a goat, three wannabe doctors, and the FDA? If not, chances are you soon will. Eric S. Juhnke’s “Quacks and Crusaders: The Fabulous Careers of John Brinkley, Norman Baker, and Harry Hoxsey” shares the narrative of Sundance Film Festival debut “Nuts!,” a Penny Lane directed film.
“Quacks and Crusaders” tells the story of John Brinkley, Norman Baker, and Harry Hoxsey–the ultimate snake oil salesmen of the twentieth century. One promoted goat gland transplants as a remedy for lost virility or infertility. Another blamed aluminum cooking utensils for causing cancer. The third was targeted by the Food and Drug Administration as “public enemy number one” for his worthless cures.
With backgrounds in lowbrow performance—carnivals, vaudeville, night clubs—each of these charismatic con men used the emerging power of radio to hawk alternative cures in the Midwest beginning in the roaring twenties, through the Depression era, and into the 1950s. All scorned the medical establishment for avarice while amassing considerable fortunes of their own; and although the American Medical Association castigated them for preying on the ignorant, Juhnke’s book shows that the case against them wasn’t all that simple.
“Quacks and Crusaders” offers a revealing look at the connections between fraudulent medicine and populist rhetoric in middle America. Juhnke examines the careers of these three personalities to paint a vision of medicine that championed average Americans, denounced elitism, and affirmed rustic values. All appealed to the common man, winning audiences and patrons in rural America by casting their pitches in everyday language, and their messages proved more potent than their medicines in treating the fears, insecurities, and failing health of their numerous supporters.
Juhnke first examines the career of each man, revealing their geniuses as businessmen and propagandists–with such success that Brinkley and Baker ran for governor of their states and Hoxsey had thousands of supporters protest his “persecution” by the FDA. Juhnke then investigates the identity, motives, and willingness to believe of their many patients and followers. He shows how all three men used populist rhetoric—evangelical, anti-Communist, anti-intellectual—to attract their clients, and then how their particular brand of populism sometimes mutated to anti-Semitism and other sentiments of the radical right.
By treating the incurable, Brinkley, Baker, and Hoxsey took on the mantles of common folk crusaders. Brinkley was idolized for his goat gland cures until his death, and Hoxsey’s former head nurse continued his work from Tijuana until her death in 1999. In considering who visits quacks and why, Juhnke has shed new light not only on the ongoing battle between alternative and organized medicine, but also on the persistence of quackery—and gullibility—in American culture.