When your mother-in-law gives you a book and says, “It was too gross for me, but it seems right up your alley,” should you: (a) be alarmed, (b) be offended, (c) be flattered, or (d) start reading it immediately?
I chose (c) and (d), which is how I discovered Charlatan, Pope Brock’s fascinating, brilliantly told, historical account of medical quackery in the early 1900s. Think The Devil in the White City meets The Road to Wellville.
It is, on one level, the story of John Brinkley, who got his start as a transient hawker of miracle tonics, obtained a medical license from a shady diploma mill, and eventually grew famous and wealthy as one of the pioneers of “rejuvenation”—that is, the transplantation of goat testicles into impotent men.
But underneath the bizarre, sleazy and frequently abhorrent practices of Brinkley and many others (medical hucksters flourished in this more provincial, trusting era), you will find a story of human gullibility, suspension of reason, and willingness to be led, however implausibly, by the promise of a shortcut to happiness. The central characters, then and now, are you and I.
It’s easy to “tsk tsk” those simple, unenlightened souls of an earlier age. Who would pay the equivalent of $8,000 in current value for such a dubious experimental surgery, one aggressively condemned and repudiated by the AMA? (Brinkley would eventually be sued for more than a dozen wrongful death cases.)
But you could just as well ask, why do people today pay $29.99 for an “energy” bracelet whose benefits are acknowledged to be entirely bogus? Why is cosmetic surgery a $30 billion—and growing—global industry? Why did so many of Harold Camping’s followers sell their possessions and quit their jobs in anticipation of the Rapture?
Because we want to believe—in God, in Nature, in scientific discovery, in something beyond ourselves—never more so than when our health and vitality are involved. (We think we’re applying reason, but research shows we’re drawn to evidence that confirms what we already believe.)
“Unlike most scams, which target greed, quackery fires deeper into the Jungian universals: our fear of death, our craving for miracles,” Pope writes. “When we see night approaching, nearly all of us are rubes.”
If this sounds misanthropic, I don’t mean it to be. I’m not at all condemning belief. Objective reality has gaps in it, and each of us fills them in with something.
Just not goat testicles, please.