Opinion

How would the ‘Kansas goat doctor’ have behaved in office? The answer is Mark Steffen.

February 6, 2022 3:33 am

Sen. Mark Steffen, an anesthesiologist and Republican from Hutchinson, appears during a Jan. 26, 2022, hearing of the Senate health committee, where he revealed he has been under investigation for prescribing ivermectin to COVID-19 patients. (Sherman Smith/Kansas Reflector)

Mark Steffen could give old Doc Brinkley a run for his money.

John R. Brinkley was a quack of the first order. The “Kansas goat doctor” made a fortune a century ago by promising old men he could restore their sexual vigor by grafting bits of goat testicles onto their tender parts. It was nonsense, but it made Brinkley rich.

Steffen, a Hutchinson anesthesiologist 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 reveal came during a hearing on a bill Steffen introduced that would give himself and other doctors the authority to treat coronavirus patients with ivermectin and hydroxychloroquine without reprimand. The drugs have been touted by the medical fringe, but the FDA says they may be dangerous when used off-label to treat the virus. Steffen doesn’t appear to have a financial stake in the manufacture of the drugs, but his advocacy earns him street cred with the anti-science junta in control of the Statehouse.

Steffen also occupies a position, as a senator, that Brinkley would have envied. As part of the ruling conservative majority, Steffen gets to make laws that further his self-interest and that of his like-minded friends. Take Senate Bill 381. That’s the one he introduced that would allow physicians to prescribe ivermectin and hydroxychloroquine without interference by a pesky state board.

A hand-colored photograph of John Brinkley, taken during one of his campaigns for governor by Clarisa “Cassie” V. McColloch, of McPherson. (kansasmemory.org/Kansas State Historical Society)

But wait, there’s more. The bill would force pharmacists to fill prescriptions for the drugs, even if it was against their best professional judgment; overturn any past disciplinary action for doctors who had prescribed the drugs; and shield doctors from any civil liability from the patients they may harm.

Some of Brinkley’s patients did die. But in the 1920s Brinkley had a steady flow of customers to his clinic at Milford, Kansas, willing to hand over $750 for the procedure. That would be close to $10,000 in today’s money. Brinkley had considerable influence in Kansas and across the Great Plains, because he had one thing that most of his detractors did not: a radio station. A confirmed populist, Brinkley broadcast daily on KFKB (Kansas First, Kansas Best!), giving homespun advice, answering questions that listeners sent in by the mailbag, and always touting his goat gland cure.

If you couldn’t afford to make the trip to Milford for the procedure, then you could find his patent medicines for every ill for sale at the local pharmacy. He eventually lost his license to practice medicine in the state of Kansas, thanks in large part to an investigation of his practices by the fledgling American Medical Association.

Within days of losing his license to practice in Kansas, Brinkley fought back by announcing a write-in campaign for governor. He toured the state in his own airplane, the Romancer, put all of the resources of KFKB behind the campaign, and likely would have won had all of the votes cast for him been counted. Just days before the election, the state attorney general said the rules for write-in candidates had changed, and anything other than a vote for “J.R. Brinkley” would be tossed. Democrat Harry H. Woodring became governor instead.

Steffen, who was appointed to fill an unexpired term on the Reno County Commission before being elected to the state senate, displays the same kind of populist distrust of authority that Brinkley did. The “liberal media” is out to get him, Steffen carps, and the medical establishment seeks to stifle him because he dares to speak the truth. Like Brinkley, Steffen claims he is fighting for the rights of the common people and throws in a dose of religiosity for good measure.

“Then the prophet began speaking truth to the masses — a dangerous procedure even in the year of Our Lord 1930,” said Brinkley’s campaign platform. Yes, he had the brass to use the word “procedure.” The platform accused the medical establishment of punishing him for spreading sound medical advice. “Vilification, false statements, and ridicule have been and are now being used to destroy this man who dared speak for the common people.”

There's nothing new about gullible Americans being persuaded, out of fear or desperation, to try remedies that are bad for them. It's part of the hogwash that, in the early 20th Century, muckraking journalists began the fight against.

– Max McCoy

Now here’s Steffen, at the Jan. 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 hold over me to think they’re going to silence me as I serve as a state senator,” he said. “And obviously, that’s not working out for them. None of it is patient-based complaints. It’s all what I’ve said in the public and what I said as a county commissioner. I stand by everything I said.”

Steffen has accused the chief medical officer at the University of Kansas Health System of spreading “propaganda” about COVID-19 and, as a county commissioner, promoting the use of natural  “essential oils” to combat the virus. He has repeatedly knocked the federal government’s description of vaccines as “safe and effective” (they are) and has described the mandate fight as a battle for the “soul of our nation.”

Ivermectin has been approved by the FDA to treat some kinds of illness in humans, including parasitic worms, but not COVID-19. Veterinarians use it in a different form and strength as a horse dewormer. Hydroxychloroquine is an antimalarial drug that was given emergency authorization by the FDA early in the pandemic, but that authorization was rescinded after studies showed it was not effective 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 were sickened or died.

There’s nothing new about gullible Americans being persuaded, out of fear or desperation, to try remedies that are bad for them. It’s part of the hogwash that, in the early 20th Century, muckraking journalists began the fight against. In 1905, Collier’s Weekly ran a series by Samuel Hopkins Adams titled “The Great American Fraud,” which exposed the sometimes deadly patent medicine market. The same year, Upton Sinclair released the serialized version of “The Jungle,” which dramatized unsanitary and unsafe conditions in the Chicago meatpacking industry. These and other pressures resulted in the Food and Drug Administration, which has a wide range of duties, including the regulation of medicines today.

Dr. John R. Brinkley used a Chevrolet truck, identified as “Ammunition Train No.1 Heavy Artillery,” during his unsuccessful 1932 campaign for Kansas Governor. (kansasmemory.org/Kansas State Historical Society)

Quackery and pseudoscience have long been staples of American culture, and in the early 19th Century huckster Samuel Thomson provided a template for generations to come. Thomson claimed natural remedies were superior to chemical ones, sold his books and nostrums to millions of Americans, and said established medicine aimed to silence him because he challenged its power and profits. Thomson, according to a 2020 John Charpentier opinion essay, manipulated his followers by playing on their cultural, political, and religious identities.

Steffen, who has a fondness for bolo ties and a talent at shunning reporters, would be at home in the days before all of today’s tiresome government intervention. He is a folk hero to the radical right in Kansas, that weird coalition of  hucksters and theocrats holding the keys to the Statehouse. Steffen’s proposed legislation to protect himself from the consequences of prescribing remedies that just might injure his patients, if passed, is a bit of charlatanism that even old Brinkley might have had a hard time dreaming up.

After losing the 1932 election for governor, Brinkley sold his radio station and moved to Del Rio, Texas, where he operated a clinic similar to his Milford one. He also obtained permission from the Mexican government to operate a 50,000-watt radio state, XER, just across the Rio Grande in Villa Acuña. The power of the station was later upped to 150,000 watts, creating a “border blaster” station with a signal strong enough to be heard back 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 differences between Brinkley and Steffen, of course. At 59, he’s already beaten the old goat doctor in the longevity sweepstakes (and I wish him a long and healthy life, in spite of his best efforts to make the rest of us sick). He has legitimate medical credentials. He may sincerely believe what he says about medicine and religion, and he hasn’t killed anybody, at least not directly. Yet.

But the biggest difference is that there’s not enough political will to stop Steffen.

Brinkley’s hold on Kansas was only broken when the state toughened the medical licensing laws and his broadcast license was revoked by the Federal Radio Commission, the forerunner to the FCC. Steffen, like Brinkley, bristles at scrutiny or oversight. For now, Steffen is riding an anti-expertise wave of populist support. Where or when that wave may break is unclear. But until Kansans get sick enough of this nonsense and do something to check the hokum, Steffen will remain a clear and present danger to the public health.

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Max McCoy
Max McCoy

Max McCoy is an award-winning author and journalist. A native Kansan, he started his career at the Pittsburg Morning Sun and was soon writing for national magazines. His investigative stories on unsolved murders, serial killers and hate groups earned him first-place awards from the Associated Press Managing Editors and other organizations. McCoy has also written more than 20 books, the most recent of which is "Elevations: A Personal Exploration of the Arkansas River," named a Kansas Notable Book by the state library. "Elevations" also won the National Outdoor Book Award, in the history/biography category. Max teaches journalism at Emporia State University.

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