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Quack Clichés

003 00:00:54 Dialogue: “When he stood before the dean of Johns Hopkins”
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Timecode: 00:00:54

Dialogue: “When he stood before the dean of Johns Hopkins”

We can’t verify whether this scene at Johns Hopkins actually happened, but it was a constant feature of Brinkley’s origin story. The language being spoken by the narrator is taken almost verbatim from The Life of A Man, a biography commissioned and paid for by Brinkley (more on that book later). In 1902, Brinkley graduated …

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We can’t verify whether this scene at Johns Hopkins actually happened, but it was a constant feature of Brinkley’s origin story. The language being spoken by the narrator is taken almost verbatim from The Life of A Man, a biography commissioned and paid for by Brinkley (more on that book later). In 1902, Brinkley graduated from high school and he would have been 17 years old on July 8, so it’s feasible that he could have decided to try to enrol in medical school at that time. However, the whole scene feels rather improbable to us, and the “I tried to get legitimate medicine to accept me and they cruelly declined” is also a standard quack cliché.

011 00:01:58 Dialogue: “A farmer named Stittsworth”
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Timecode: 00:01:58

Dialogue: “A farmer named Stittsworth”

This is the origin story of the goat gland procedure, as told by Brinkley and repeated ever since. Portions of this story and photos of Stittsworth and his son Billy appeared in newspapers all over the country as early as 1920. The Stittsworths also “starred” in and often appeared in person with a promotional film …

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This is the origin story of the goat gland procedure, as told by Brinkley and repeated ever since. Portions of this story and photos of Stittsworth and his son Billy appeared in newspapers all over the country as early as 1920. The Stittsworths also “starred” in and often appeared in person with a promotional film made in 1922 or 1923. However, there are many reasons to not believe this version of the story.

Here are some of them:

(1) Bill Stittsworth’s son said that he and his father were on Brinkley’s payroll until 1942. This is strange, because Brinkley stopped doing the goat gland surgeries in 1933 and thus had no reason to pay someone to promote it after that point. Logic suggests they were being paid not to tell everyone that this was all made up. Perhaps the younger Stittsworth lied, or remembered wrong; but the Stittsworths appeared in many photographs from 1919-on, and in person in 1923 with the promotional film, so it makes sense that they would have been paid for this. Interestingly, it doesn’t seem that Stittsworth was mentioned by full name in the advertising or public relations efforts. We did find one article referring to him as “Uncle Billy, one of the village patriarchs.”

(2) This story, with photos of the world’s first “goat gland baby” (Billy Stittsworth) only began appearing in newspapers after Brinkley hired H.R. Mosnat, an ad man. Mosnat’s efforts (better classified as pioneering public relations than advertising) included placing this “news item” in papers all over the country.

(3) The story was highly inconsistent; Brinkley sometimes claimed that he had been doing experiments with “xenotransplantation” for many years by this point and was eager to try it out on a human; sometimes it was Stittsworth’s idea and he tried to say no, etc.

(4) The story is ridiculous.

120 00:17:58 Dialogue: “First they ignore you”
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Timecode: 00:17:58

Dialogue: “First they ignore you”

This is a Gandhi quote, except according to Wikiquote, there is no record of Gandhi saying this. A close variant of the quotation first appears in a 1918 US trade union address by Nicholas Klein. Wikiquote also reports that a very similar quote is often attributed to Arther Schopenhauer in the format, “Every truth passes …

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This is a Gandhi quote, except according to Wikiquote, there is no record of Gandhi saying this. A close variant of the quotation first appears in a 1918 US trade union address by Nicholas Klein. Wikiquote also reports that a very similar quote is often attributed to Arther Schopenhauer in the format, “Every truth passes through three stages before it is recognized. In the first it is ridiculed, in the second it is opposed, in the third it is regarded as self- evident.” However, there is no record of Schopenhauer saying that either.

124 00:19:17 Dialogue: “Doctor named Ignaz Semmelweis”

Timecode: 00:19:17

Dialogue: “Doctor named Ignaz Semmelweis”

As far as we know, Brinkley did not actually reference Semmelweis in this hearing. However, Semmelweis was a real person and his story is more or less as Brinkley describes it, and quacks absolutely love to tell this story. Why? Because it is real example of a “paradigm shift” in science, one of those rare occasions …

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As far as we know, Brinkley did not actually reference Semmelweis in this hearing. However, Semmelweis was a real person and his story is more or less as Brinkley describes it, and quacks absolutely love to tell this story. Why? Because it is real example of a “paradigm shift” in science, one of those rare occasions about which it is accurate to say, “Everything we thought we knew was wrong!” Because Semmelweis was persecuted for his beliefs, the quack can also place his inevitable trouble with authorities into a much more beneficial “underdog” narrative framework: from “he must have done something wrong to be in so much legal trouble” to “he is a persecuted genius ahead of his time.” Note how much exciting a story the latter is.

In the libel trial that comes later in our film, Brinkley’s counsel really did force Fishbein “to agree it had taken many years for the medical profession to accept the theories of Harvey, Jenner, Koch, Semmelweis, and other medical giants.”

125 00:20:25 Image: Testimonies from patients

Timecode: 00:20:25

Image: Testimonies from patients

Patient testimonials are the bedrock of the quack’s claim to legitimacy, and Brinkley indeed had many patients testify for him at this hearing (we don’t know their exact words). “‘Testimonials’ are personal accounts of someone’s experiences with a therapy. They are generally subjective: ‘I felt better,’ ‘I had more energy,’ ‘I wasn’t as nauseated,’ ‘The …

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Patient testimonials are the bedrock of the quack’s claim to legitimacy, and Brinkley indeed had many patients testify for him at this hearing (we don’t know their exact words).

“‘Testimonials’ are personal accounts of someone’s experiences with a therapy. They are generally subjective: ‘I felt better,’ ‘I had more energy,’ ‘I wasn’t as nauseated,’ ‘The pain went away,’ and so on. Testimonials are inherently selective. People are much more likely to talk about their ‘amazing cure” than about something that didn’t work for them. The proponents of ‘alternative’ methods can, of course, pick which testimonials they use. For example, let’s suppose that if 100 people are sick, 50 of them will recover on their own even if they do nothing. So, if all 100 people use a certain therapy, half will get better even if the treatment doesn’t do anything. These people could say ‘I took therapy X and my disease went away!’ This would be completely honest, even though the therapy had done nothing for them. So, testimonials are useless for judging treatment effectiveness. For all we know, those giving the testimonial might be the only people who felt better. Or, suppose that of 100 patients trying a therapy, 10 experienced no change, 85 felt worse, and 5 felt better. The five who improved could quite honestly say that they felt better, even though nearly everyone who tried the remedy stayed the same or got worse!” (Common Questions about Science and “Alternative” Health Methods, Gregory L. Smith)

235 00:46:00 Dialogue: “I shall be the one to bring you true happiness”
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Timecode: 00:46:00

Dialogue: “I shall be the one to bring you true happiness”

What we have Brinkley saying here is really only a slight exaggeration of how he really cast himself (he did, after all, compare himself to Jesus and Moses sort of frequently).

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What we have Brinkley saying here is really only a slight exaggeration of how he really cast himself (he did, after all, compare himself to Jesus and Moses sort of frequently).

238 00:46:37 Dialogue: “No more sense than the geese”
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Timecode: 00:46:37

Dialogue: “No more sense than the geese”

“If only they had the wisdom to cooperate with the inspired healer from Milford . . . but the doctors had no more sense than the geese of Rome who could only call out ‘Quack! ‘Quack!,’” is taken directly from The Life of a Man (219).

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“If only they had the wisdom to cooperate with the inspired healer from Milford . . . but the doctors had no more sense than the geese of Rome who could only call out ‘Quack! ‘Quack!,'” is taken directly from The Life of a Man (219).