How would the “Kansas goat doctor” have behaved in power? The answer is Mark Steffen.
Mark Steffen could give old Doc Brinkley a hard time.
John R. Brinkley was a top notch charlatan. The “Kansas goat doctor” made a fortune a century ago by promising old men that he could restore their sexual vigor by grafting pieces of goat testicles onto their tender parts. It was absurd, but it made Brinkley rich.
Steffen, a Hutchinson anesthetist and GOP state senator, recently said he was under scrutiny by the Kansas Board of Healing Arts for prescribing ivermectin to COVID-19 patients. The revelation came during a hearing on a bill introduced by Steffen that would give him and other doctors the power to treat coronavirus patients with ivermectin and hydroxychloroquine without reprimand. The drugs have been touted by the medical fringe, but the FDA says they can be dangerous when used off-label to treat the virus. Steffen doesn’t appear to have a financial stake in the manufacture of the drug, but his advocacy earns him credibility with the anti-science junta that controls the Statehouse.
Steffen also holds a position, as a senator, that Brinkley would have envied. As part of the ruling conservative majority, Steffen can make laws that further his personal interest and that of his like-minded friends. Take Senate Bill 381. It’s the one he presented that would allow doctors to prescribe ivermectin and hydroxychloroquine without the interference of a pesky state board.
But wait, there’s more. The bill would require pharmacists to fill prescriptions for drugs, even if it was against their best professional judgment; reverse any past disciplinary action for the doctors who prescribed the drugs; and shielding physicians from any civil liability vis-à-vis patients they may harm.
Some of Brinkley’s patients died. But by the 1920s, Brinkley had a steady stream of clients to his clinic in Milford, Kansas, willing to hand over $750 for the procedure. That would be nearly $10,000 in today’s money. Brinkley had considerable influence in Kansas and the Great Plains because he had one thing most of his critics didn’t: a radio station. A confirmed populist, Brinkley broadcasts daily on KFKB (Kansas first, Kansas best!), giving simple advice, answering questions that listeners have mailed in, and always bragging about his goat gland cure.
If you couldn’t afford to make the trip to Milford for the procedure, you might find its patent medicines for every disease on sale at the local pharmacy. He eventually lost his license to practice medicine in the state of Kansas, largely due to an investigation into his practices by the fledgling American Medical Association.
Days after losing his license to practice in Kansas, Brinkley retaliated by announcing a written campaign for governor. He toured the state in his own plane, the Novelist, put all of KFKB’s resources behind the campaign, and likely would have won if all the votes cast for him had been counted. Just days before the election, the state’s attorney general said the rules for write-in candidates had changed and any vote other than a vote for “JR Brinkley” would be thrown out. Democrat Harry H. Woodring became governor instead.
Steffen, who was nominated to serve an unexpired term on the Reno County Commission before being elected to the state Senate, displays the same kind of populist distrust of authority as Brinkley. The “liberal media” is out to get him, Steffen carp, and the medical establishment seeks to stifle him because he dares to speak the truth. Like Brinkley, Steffen says he fights for the rights of ordinary people and adds a dose of religiosity for good measure.
“So the prophet began speaking the truth to the masses – a dangerous procedure even in the year of Our Lord 1930,” Brinkley’s campaign platform said. Yes, he had the brass to use the word “procedure”. The platform accused the medical establishment of punishing him for spreading sound medical advice. “Defamation, misrepresentation and ridicule have been and are now being used to destroy this man who dared to speak out for ordinary people.”
It is nothing new that gullible Americans are persuaded, out of fear or desperation, to try remedies that are bad for them. This is part of the rubbish that, at the start of the 20th century, nosy journalists began to fight.
Now here is Steffen, at the January 25 hearing on his bill, in which he claimed the Kansas Board of Healing Arts had no interest in resolving the complaints against him.
“They’re using it to make me think they’re going to shut me up when I’m a state senator,” he said. “And obviously it doesn’t work for them. These are not patient complaints. That’s all I said in public and what I said as County Commissioner. I stand by everything I said.
Steffen accused the University of Kansas Health System‘s chief medical officer of spreading COVID-19 ‘propaganda’ and, as county commissioner, of promoting the use of natural ‘essential oils’ to fight the virus. He has repeatedly denounced the federal government’s description of vaccines as “safe and effective” (they are) and described the fight for the mandate as a battle for the “soul of our nation.”
Ivermectin has been approved by the FDA to treat certain types of illnesses in humans, including parasitic worms, but not COVID-19. Veterinarians use it in a different form and strength as a dewormer for horses. Hydroxychloroquine is an antimalarial drug that received emergency clearance from the FDA early in the pandemic, but that clearance was rescinded after studies showed it was ineffective against the virus. It was touted by former President Donald Trump, and some Americans who self-administered the drug or took something they thought was similar got sick or died.
It is nothing new that gullible Americans are persuaded, out of fear or desperation, to try remedies that are bad for them. This is part of the rubbish that, at the start of the 20th century, nosy journalists began to fight. In 1905, Collier’s Weekly published a series by Samuel Hopkins Adams called “The Great American Fraud”, which exposed the sometimes deadly market for patent medicines. That same year, Upton Sinclair released the serialized version of “The Jungle”, which dramatized the unsanitary and dangerous conditions in Chicago’s meatpacking industry. These and other pressures culminated in the Food and Drug Administration, which has a wide range of functions, including drug regulation today.
Quackery and pseudoscience have long been staples of American culture, and in the early 19th century, peddler Samuel Thomson provided a model for generations to come. Thomson claimed that natural remedies were superior to chemical remedies, sold his books and remedies to millions of Americans, and said established medicine aimed to silence him because he challenged his power and profits. Thomson, according to a 2020 opinion essay by John Charpentier, manipulated his followers by playing on their cultural, political and religious identities.
Steffen, who has a penchant for ties and a knack for avoiding reporters, would be at home in the days before today’s tiresome government intervention. He’s a folk hero of Kansas’s radical right, that strange coalition of peddlers and theocrats who hold the keys to the Statehouse. Steffen’s proposed legislation to protect himself from the consequences of prescribing remedies that could harm his patients, if passed, is a bit of quackery that even old Brinkley might have had a hard time imagining.
After losing the 1932 gubernatorial election, Brinkley sold his radio station and moved to Del Rio, Texas, where he operated a clinic similar to Milford’s. He also got permission from the Mexican government to operate a 50,000 watt state radio, XER, just across the Rio Grande at Villa Acuña. The station’s power was later increased to 150,000 watts, creating a “border blaster” station with a signal strong enough to be heard in Kansas and many other states. Brinkley, who eventually lost his second radio station and went bankrupt, died in 1942. He was 56.
There are of course differences between Brinkley and Steffen. At 59, he has already beaten the old goat doctor in the longevity contest (and I wish him a long and healthy life, despite all his efforts to make us sick). He has legitimate medical references. He can sincerely believe what he says about medicine and religion, and he hasn’t killed anyone, at least not directly. Again.
But the biggest difference is that there is not enough political will to stop Steffen.
Brinkley’s hold on Kansas wasn’t broken until the state toughened medical licensing laws and his broadcast license was revoked by the Federal Radio Commission, the FCC’s forerunner. Steffen, like Brinkley, bristles at scrutiny or surveillance. For now, Steffen is riding an anti-expertise wave of populist support. Where and when this wave might break is unclear. But until the Kansans get tired of this nonsense and do something to verify the hokum, Steffen will remain a clear and present danger to public health.
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