Penny Lane on Nuts!, Her Documentary About 'Goat Gland Doctor' John Brinkley

According to his biography, the thing that made John Romulus Brinkley famous wasn’t even his idea. In The Life of a Man, Clement Wood writes that in 1917, Brinkley, a doctor running a drug store in Milford, Kansas, was talking to a farmer struggling with impotence when he jokingly referenced goats going at it nearby. “You wouldn’t have any trouble, if you had a pair of those buck glands in you,” he said.

“Well,” replied the farmer, “why don’t you put ‘em in? Why don’t you go ahead and put a pair of goat glands in me? Transplant ‘em, graft ‘em on, the way I’d graft a Pound Sweet on an apple stray.”

Brinkley balked at first, but eventually—after arguing with the farmer about it until 3 a.m.—he was persuaded to perform the surgery, for which he was paid $150. Within the next few months, he performed the operation several more times. Each time, according to The Life of a Man, the surgery worked. Impotence was cured. Babies were being conceived. 

By today's standards, of course, we know that this is pure bunk—Brinkley was clearly a quack. His xenotransplantation surgery could never have worked. But in the early 20th century, this fact was not so clear, and Brinkley’s renown—and his fortune—grew. Soon, the doctor was charging $750 per surgery, performing them by the thousands, and working with celebrity clientele. He was even mocked, on film, by Buster Keaton. Brinkley and his wife, Minnie, and their son, nicknamed Johnny Boy, lived like kings, first in Milford, then in Del Rio, Texas. During the Great Depression, while much of the nation struggled, Brinkley sold other cures at a rate of $100 a treatment, raking in $1 million a year.

As unbelievable as it may sound, a goat testicle–based cure for impotence was just the beginning for Brinkley. He was an early adopter of radio, pioneered the advertorial, and conducted a write-in campaign for the governorship of Kansas. And, of course, he had his fair share of enemies, including the Federal Radio Commission and the American Medical Association. But it was his own hubris, not his enemies, that would eventually bring Brinkley down.

When she first read about Brinkley in Pope Brock’s biography of the doctor, Charlatan, documentary director Penny Lane (Our Nixon) knew she had to turn the doctor’s incredible (and ultimately tragic) story into a movie. “I just immediately was taken by the story,” Lane tells mental_floss. “It seemed ready-made for a film.” Lane’s documentary about Brinkley, Nuts!, premieres at this year’s Sundance Film Festival.

Once she had decided to make a documentary about Brinkley’s life, Lane dove right into archival research. Using Brock’s sources in Charlatan as a starting point, “I just started flying around the country and going to these small county historical societies,” she says. “I actually found a number of just private individuals who were interested in John Brinkley and had their own personal collections that they’d collected on eBay over the years—photographs, his advertisements, brochures, and home movies.” Trial transcripts and contemporary newspaper articles also served as important sources.

Lane spent two years traveling to collect archival materials. One key piece she found was The Life of a Man. Wood, she says, “was a hack—he would write whatever you paid him to write.” Brinkley paid Wood to write The Life of a Man, then published it at his own publishing house in the 1930s; he gave copies away as promotional items. “The book is so crazy—it’s full of the most insane purple prose you’ve ever read,” Lane says. “It’s just over the top: Comparing Brinkley to Jesus, and Galileo. I was so taken with the tone of it—it just cracked me up.”

The book provided an artistic breakthrough: Lane knew she wanted it to be the center of her documentary. “It’s kind of the inspiration, because the book cloaks itself in a kind of authority,” she says. “It’s a biography, and you’re like, ‘OK, I know what biographies are. They do a bunch of research and they tell the truth.’ But it’s not a biography. It’s full of lies. The writer had no compunction about just making stuff up. I loved that! I was amazed at how you could look at something and think you know what it is, and not realize that you’re just being duped.” Parts of The Life of a Man are used as narration throughout Nuts!.

Other important archival finds included Brinkley’s home movies and transcription discs Brinkley had recorded. “I was lucky,” says Lane, because “it wasn’t common for radio operators to do that at the time.” (The discs were actually pre-recorded radio spots that Brinkley had created to get around Federal Radio Commission laws.) Still, she couldn’t use much of those discs: Brinkley’s recordings “must’ve been considered really seductive and convincing in the 1930s,” she says, “but if you listened to him on the radio now you’d be like, ‘This is not seductive and convincing. This is actually just creepy and weird.’ So I didn’t get to use very much of his radio stuff.”

Her best find was a 1922 film Brinkley had created called Rejuvenation Through Gland Transplantation. “It looks like a science film—it’s got illustrations of the human testicle, and it shows how the procedure works, and photos of some of the people that ended up having this procedure,” Lane says. “Of course it’s not a science film, it’s an ad they made to look like a science film, which is perfect.” The film was discovered, by chance, at the Library of Congress, where it was mislabeled. “No one really knows where it came from,” Lane says. “It really gave me the kind of material that you’d want for a film like this—you want to be able to show the cross section of the testicle and how it works. It was totally a score.”

With her materials assembled, Lane began to piece her documentary together—but because of how she wanted to approach it, she found herself in somewhat unfamiliar territory. “I had this risky idea, at the beginning, that I wanted to create this film in a way where I’m creating the maximum possible chance that a viewer could fall for Brinkley’s bullshit,” she says. “I wanted to be manipulative, and then I wanted to, obviously, unravel that in the film. But I thought, ‘Well, can I do that? Is it really possible to pull that off?’”

She had plenty of archival material to work with, though not as much as she'd had in her previous documentary, Our Nixon (which mental_floss discussed with the director at SXSW in 2013). “With Nixon, I had almost 4000 hours of candid audio tape, and it really made it possible for me to construct actual characters,” she says. “With Brinkley, I had enough stuff to do a film that was chock full of awesome archival material of all kinds, but I didn't have any candid audio, so it was much harder to figure out how to make him a character.”

What she needed, Lane realized, was a script—not something a documentarian normally has to think about. “For Brinkley to be seductive and feel real, I needed to script him and create scenes from his life,” she says. So she brought in writer Thom Stylinski, who helped to craft the narration and penned reenactment scenes that were later animated. “I’m not sure I would’ve had the confidence even to do it without him,” she says. “I was like, ‘How do you write a script? I don’t even know.’ It was just really outside the realm of what I had done before.” The animation for each chapter of Brinkley's life was created by a different company and was partially funded on Kickstarter.

It took eight years for Lane to craft Nuts!, which follows Brinkley’s life from his humble beginnings in Milford to the openings of Brinkley hospitals in several states and the creation of “Formula 1020,” which Brinkley claimed was a distillation of goat glands that would cure everything from impotence to insanity. Lane says the most fascinating and outrageous thing about Brinkley was his ability to stay one step ahead of the people who wanted to bring him down. “It was this fun cat and mouse game,” she says. “Watch people try to stop him, and then watch him outsmart them, over and over again. Con men—we just love those characters. Even if you know they’re the bad guy, it’s really fun to watch the one who just keeps winning ... You can’t help it. It’s very appealing.”

The prime example was when authorities shut down Brinkley’s powerful and popular 5000-watt Kansas radio tower. “He was like, ‘Well, no problem. I’m going to go to Mexico, and I’m going to build a new radio station. It’s not going to be 5000 watts, it’s going to be a million watts, and you’re really going to regret ever having shut down my radio station in Kansas,’” Lane says. “I think that was the most amazing move of his entire career. It was brilliant.”

But it all came tumbling down when Brinkley sued the American Medical Association’s Morris Fishbein for libel in 1939. (In “Modern Medical Charlatans,” a two-part article published in Hygeia, a magazine from the American Medical Association, Fishbein had written, among other things, that “In John R. Brinkley, quackery reaches its apotheosis.”) Once Brinkley was in court and on the stand, he was exposed as a fraud—he wasn’t even a real doctor (he had received his degree from a diploma mill).

In short order, Brinkley was sued by former patients for malpractice and investigated by the IRS for tax fraud. By 1941, he had declared bankruptcy. Soon after that, he was investigated for mail fraud. He died of heart failure in 1942, leaving his wife (who supported his claims that the goat gland surgery was legit until she died) and his son penniless.

“It’s a really tragic story—ultimately, a very American tragedy: These complicated characters who are geniuses, who are born with nothing, on the outskirts of society, apply themselves and become very successful and famous, and then go down really badly, in a way because of their own hubris," Lane says. "If he hadn’t sued the AMA for libel, Brinkley probably could’ve just kept going—but he actually dragged himself into court, and that’s what destroyed his credibility and his career.”

Still, despite his misdeeds, it’s hard not to feel bad for Brinkley. “He’s not just the stock villain—I think he’s an interesting, real human being,” Lane says. “But at the end of the day, it’s just irrefutable that he was a con man. A lot of people love him because he did a lot of charity, and that's great. But it doesn’t take away from the fact that he was a con man.”

Nuts! premieres at Sundance tonight. Click here to find out when and where it’s playing at the festival.

All images courtesy of Nuts!.

Sergeant Marshall/Department of Defense, NARA // Public Domain
Would You Be Able to Pass a World War I Military Literacy Test?
Sergeant Marshall/Department of Defense, NARA // Public Domain
Sergeant Marshall/Department of Defense, NARA // Public Domain

Though reading and writing might not come to mind as the first requirement for trench warfare, during the early 20th century, the U.S. Army became increasingly concerned with whether or not its soldiers were literate. Thousands of World War I soldiers couldn't read printed directions on basic military tasks. The Army didn't implement its first major literacy program until the 1940s, but literacy tests were included in a battery of psychological evaluations World War I recruits went through to determine their mental fitness and intelligence, as the blog Futility Closet recently highlighted.

These unconventional literacy tests largely took the form of a yes or no questions with obvious answers, according to the 1921 report from the U.S. Surgeon General, Psychological Examining in the United States Army. Edited by pioneering intelligence-testing psychologist Robert Yerkes, who developed the military's first psychology exams for new recruits (and was also famous for his support for eugenics), the volume is a lengthy compilation of all of the methods the U.S. Army used to test the intelligence of its future soldiers. Many of these tests are now considered racist and culturally biased—some of the "intelligence" testing questions required recruits to know things like what products Velvet Joe (a figure used in tobacco campaigns) advertised—but some of the literacy questions, in particular, simply come off as weird in the modern era. Some are downright existential, in fact, while others—"Is a guitar a disease?"—come off as almost poetic.

A long questionnaire to test literacy, including questions like 'Is coal white?'
Psychological Examining in the United States Army, Google Books // Public Domain

One test, the Devens Literarcy Test, asked recruits questions like "Is genuine happiness a priceless treasure?" and "Does success tend to bring pleasure?" Another section of the test asked "Do boys like to play?" and "Do clerks enjoy a vacation?"

Other questions seem like they're up for debate, like "Are painters ever artless individuals?" and "Is extremely athletic exercise surely necessary?" Surely the answers to questions like "Should criminals forfeit liberty?" and "Is misuse of money an evil?" depend on the opinions of the reader. The answer to "Do imbeciles usually hold responsible offices?" might be different depending on how the person feels about their Congressional representative, and could surely be the spark for an hour-long argument at most dinner parties.

Still others are tests of cultural knowledge, not reading skill—a major modern criticism of Yerkes's work. Despite being arguably a pretty literate person, I certainly don't know the answer to the question "Do voluntary enlistments increase the army?" A question like "Are 'diminutive' and 'Lilliputian' nearly identical?" isn't exactly a test of literacy, but a test of whether or not you've read Gulliver's Travels, which doesn't exactly seem like a necessity for military success.

Luckily, some of the questions are pretty obvious, like "Is coal white?" That one I can answer. The full list of questions used in the various versions of the Devens test is below for you to test your own Army-level literacy.

  • Do dogs bark?
  • Is coal white?
  • Can you see?
  • Do men eat stones?
  • Do boys like to play?
  • Can a bed run?
  • Do books have hands?
  • Is ice hot?
  • Do winds blow?
  • Have all girls the same name?
  • Is warm clothing good for winter?
  • Is this page of paper white?
  • Are railroad tickets free?
  • Is every young woman a teacher?
  • Is it always perfect weather?
  • Is the heart within the body?
  • Do clerks enjoy a vacation?
  • Is the President a public official?
  • Would you enjoy losing a fortune?
  • Does an auto sometimes need repair?
  • Is it important to remember commands?
  • Are avenues usually paved with oxygen?
  • Do we desire serious trouble?
  • Is practical judgment valuable?
  • Ought a man's career to be ruined by accidents?
  • Do you cordially recommend forgery?
  • Does an emergency require immediate decision?
  • Should honesty bring misfortune to its possessor?
  • Are gradual improvements worth while?
  • Is a punctual person continually tardy?
  • Are instantaneous effects invariably rapid?
  • Should preliminary disappointment discourage you?
  • Is hearsay testimony trustworthy evidence?
  • Is wisdom characteristic of the best authorities?
  • Is extremely athletic exercise surely necessary?
  • Is incessant discussion usually boresome?
  • Are algebraic symbols ever found in manuals?
  • Are tentative regulations ever advantageous?
  • Are "diminutive" and "Lilliputian" nearly identical?
  • Is an infinitesimal titanic bulk possible?
  • Do all connubial unions eventuate felicitously?
  • Is a "gelatinous exaltation" ridiculous?
  • Are "sedate" and "hilarious" similar in meaning?
  • Is avarice sometimes exhibited by cameos?
  • Can a dog run?
  • Is water dry?
  • Can you read?
  • Do stones talk?
  • Do books eat?
  • Do cats go to school?
  • Are six more than two?
  • Is John a girl's name?
  • Are there letters in a word?
  • Is your nose on your face?
  • Can you carry water in a sieve?
  • Do soldiers wear uniforms?
  • Does it rain every morning?
  • Are newspapers made of iron?
  • Are "forward" and "backward" directions?
  • Do many people attend motion-picture theatres?
  • Do handkerchiefs frequently injure human beings?
  • Do magazines contain advertisements?
  • Are political questions often the subject of debates?
  • Are empires inclosed in envelopes?
  • Are members of the family usually regarded as guests?
  • Is genuine happiness a priceless treasure?
  • Do imbeciles usually hold responsible offices?
  • May chimneys be snipped off with scissors?
  • Is moderation a desirable virtue?
  • Are apish manners desired by a hostess?
  • Do conscientious brunettes exist?
  • Do serpents make oblong echoes?
  • Do voluntary enlistments increase the army?
  • Is hypocrisy approved by honest men?
  • Is virile behavior effeminate?
  • Do alleged facts often require verification?
  • Do pestilences ordinarily bestow great benefit?
  • Are painters ever artless individuals?
  • Do the defenders of citadels sometimes capitulate?
  • Do physicians ameliorate pathological conditions?
  • Is embezzlement a serious misdemeanor?
  • Do vagrants commonly possess immaculate cravats?
  • Are "loquacious" and "voluble" opposite in meaning?
  • May heresies arise among the laity?
  • Are piscatorial activities necessarily lucrative?
  • Do tendrils terminate in cerebral hemorrhages?
  • Does a baby cry?
  • Can a hat speak?
  • Do hens lay eggs?
  • Is a stone soft?
  • Is one more than seven?
  • Do the land and sea look just alike?
  • Are some books black?
  • Does water run up hill?
  • Are stamps used on letters?
  • Do 100 cents make a dollar?
  • Are we sure what events will happen next year?
  • Do ships sail on railroads?
  • Do stones float in the air?
  • May meat be cut with a knife?
  • Are ledges common in mountain districts?
  • Does success tend to bring pleasure?
  • Are diamonds mined in mid-ocean?
  • Is misuse of money an evil?
  • Should criminals forfeit liberty?
  • Is special information usually a disadvantage?
  • Are attempted suicides always fatal?
  • Are exalted positions held by distinguished men?
  • Does confusion favor the establishment of order?
  • Is a civil answer contrary to law?
  • Is a dilapidated garment nevertheless clothing?
  • Are textile manufacturers valueless?
  • Do thieves commit depredations?
  • Does close inspection handicap accurate report?
  • Do transparent goggles transmit light?
  • Do illiterate men read romances?
  • Is irony connected with blast furnaces?
  • Do avalanches ever descend mountains?
  • Are scythes always swung by swarthy men?
  • Do pirates accumulate booty?
  • Are intervals of repose appreciated?
  • Are intermittent sounds discontinuous?
  • Is an avocational activity ordinarily pleasurable?
  • Are pernicious pedestrians translucent?
  • Are amicable relationships disrupted by increased congeniality?
  • Are many nocturnal raids surreptitiously planned
  • Are milksops likely to perpetrate violent offenses?
  • Are "precipitancy" and "procrastination" synonymous?
  • Is snow cold?
  • Can a dog read?
  • Do houses have doors?
  • Has a horse five legs?
  • Are three more than ten?
  • Do mice love cats?
  • Does a hat belong to you?
  • Do animals have glass eyes?
  • Should fathers provide clothing for children?
  • Is it true that lead is heavy
  • Do poor men have much money?
  • Is summer colder than winter?
  • Can a horse tell time by a watch?
  • Is a city larger than a country town?
  • Does Christmas ever fall on Tuesday?
  • Do Christians often overlook faults?
  • Are difficult problems easily solved?
  • Do convicts sometimes escape from prison?
  • Should the courts secure justice for everybody?
  • Are scoundrels always intoxicated?
  • Is a guitar a kind of disease?
  • Do jugglers furnish entertainment?
  • Should we build on insecure foundations?
  • Do annual conventions take place biweekly?
  • Does persistent effort favor ultimate success?
  • Is a shrewd man necessarily admired?
  • Is manual skill advantageous?
  • Are elaborate bonnets inexpensive?
  • Are petty annoyances irritating?
  • Are false arguments valid?
  • Do you approve of ruthless massacres?
  • Do blemishes occur in complexions?
  • Is air found in a complete vacuum?
  • Do robins migrate periodically?
  • Are weird tales sometimes gruesome?
  • Do felines possess locomotor appendages?
  • Do demented individuals frequently have hallucinations?
  • Are laconic messages sometimes verbose?
  • Are perfunctory endeavors usually efficacious?
  • Would a deluge extinguish a smouldering trellis?
  • Are devastated suburbs exhilarating vistas?
  • Are "contingent" and "independent" alike in meaning?

[h/t Futility Closet]

10 Not-So-Small Facts About the Volkswagen Beetle

While Volkswagen has announced—for a second time—that it's going to cease production on the Beetle, people are still singing the praises of the quirky little car. Here are 10 not-so-small things you need to know about the German car that was once named one of the top four cars of the century.


Adolf Hitler checks out a VW Beetle
Getty Images

It’s long been said that Adolf Hitler was the man behind the Beetle, and that’s sort of true. The dictator wanted German families to be able to afford a car, so he enlisted automaker Ferdinand Porsche (yes, that Porsche) to make “the people’s car.” But the basis for the Beetle had been around since long before Hitler’s demand; the Bug was heavily influenced by Porsche's V series. Rumors that Hitler directly designed the car are probably false; though he was the one who reportedly said that the car should look like a beetle, because “You only have to observe nature to learn how best to achieve streamlining,” it’s likely that he was regurgitating something he had read in an automotive magazine. Still, one thing is for certain: Hitler himself placed the cornerstone for the Porsche factory in Wolfsburg, Germany.


Perhaps still wary of anything imported from Germany, Americans shunned the Beetle when it was introduced in the States in 1949: Only two were sold in the first year. But after that, sales grew quickly. By the 1960s, hundreds of thousands of Bugs were sold every year, topping out at 570,000 in 1970.


A pink VW Beetle

We have the public to thank for the car’s distinctive nickname. Originally known as the Volkswagen Type 1, the car’s curves and rounded top led to its later, insect-like moniker. Volkswagen must have realized they had a good thing on their hands, because they started referring to the car as the VW Beetle in the late 1960s.


The UK and the U.S. aren’t the only countries that bestowed a new name on the Volkswagen Type 1. In France, it's called Coccinellewhich means ladybug. It's Maggiolino and Fusca in Italy and Brazil, respectively, both of which mean "beetle." Mexico calls it Vocho; it's Peta (turtle) in Bolivia; and Kodok (frog) in Indonesia. 


In 1999, Advertising Age declared the car's not-so-small ad campaign to be the best campaign of the last 100 years, besting Coca-Cola, Marlboro, Nike, and McDonald’s. The quirky concept and copy—which, according to Advertising Age, “Gave advertising permission to surprise, to defy and to engage the consumer without bludgeoning him about the face and body”—was a game-changer for the entire industry.

The "Think Small" line and accompanying self-deprecating copy was written by Julian Koenig, who was also responsible for naming Earth Day and coming up with Timex’s “It takes a licking and keeps on ticking” tagline. He’s also half-responsible for daughter Sarah Koenig, whom you may know from NPR’s This American Life and Serial.


Herbie the Love Bug

Because of their distinctive aesthetic, VW Bugs have been associated with everything from the Beatles to Transformers. A few highlights:

  • The Beetle with the license plate “LMW 28IF” on the cover of The Beatles' Abbey Road album was sold at an auction for $23,000 in 1986. It is now on display at Volkswagen's AutoMuseum at the company’s headquarters in Wolfsburg, Germany.
  • The Fremont Troll sculpture in Seattle, a huge statue lurking under the Aurora Bridge, clutches an actual VW Beetle. An in-progress picture shows that the car was once red. It also once contained a time capsule of Elvis memorabilia, which was stolen.
  • The Herbie the Love Bug series was a big hit for Disney in the late 1960s and early 1970s. One of the original Herbies sold for $126,500 at an auction in 2015.
  • In the original Transformers cartoon, Bumblebee transformed from a VW Bug. The car was changed to a Camaro for the live-action movies.


The so-called “blumenvasen,” a small vase that could be clipped to the dashboard, speaker grille, or windshield, was porcelain when it was originally offered. The nod to flower power became such a symbol of the car that it was incorporated into the 1998 redesign. Sadly, it didn’t make the cut for the most recent overhaul: The vase was eliminated in 2011 by marketing execs apparently seeking to make the car more male-friendly.


When the millionth VW Beetle rolled off the line in 1955, the company capped the achievement by plating the car in gold and giving it diamante accents. They also created a Bug with a wicker body in collaboration with master basket-maker Thomas Heinrich.


After WWII, the VW factory in Wolfsburg, Germany, was supposed to be handed over to the British. No British car manufacturer wanted to take responsibility for the company, though, saying that "the vehicle does not meet the fundamental technical requirement of a motor-car," "it is quite unattractive to the average buyer," and that "To build the car commercially would be a completely uneconomic enterprise." Whoops.


The last VW Bug
Getty Images

Beetle #21,529,464—the one celebrated by the mariachi band—is now at Volkswagen's AutoMuseum.


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