A charlatan doctor rises to power by pedaling a radical remedy in the days before medical regulation in the U.S. Man of the People explores the U.S. love affair with charlatans and their existence in the space between symptom and cause of public folly.
Doctor JOHN ROMULUS BRINKLEY (30s) sees a new patient in his home examination room in Milford, Kansas in the early 1920s. The farmer JIM STITSWORTH (40s) makes an unusual request. He asks the doctor to implant goat testicles into his ball sac in hopes it will boost his virility and result in a child for him and his wife. Though hesitant at first, the doctor ultimately agrees with the strange request.
Patients from all over Kansas begin to swarm the Brinkley practice requesting the “goat gland cure.” MINNIE (late 20s), Dr. Brinkley’s wife, is excited at the prospect of the new surgery. She asks her husband to perform it on himself in hopes they will have a child. Brinkley refuses, saying he has no problem in the bedroom and that he will prove it to her in due time. Doctor Brinkley conscripts Minnie to assist in the surgeries and help him obtain a radio license to advertise them over the air.
Dr. MORRIS FISHBEIN (40s), Editor of the Journal of the American Medical Association, listens to Brinkley’s radio station from his home in Chicago, Illinois. The outraged doctor is determined to expose Brinkley as a fraud, but his live-in, sickly mother, FANNY (60s), worships Brinkley and listens to his radio station regularly. To make matters worse, Fanny refuses all medication prescribed by her son, instead choosing to place her faith in Brinkley whom she writes to regularly.
Dr. MAXWELL (40s), Fishbein’s compatriot at the Journal, arrives from an expedition to Brinkley’s practice and informs Fishbein that Brinkley has been operating under false credentials. Fishbein moves to use the information against Brinkley who is planning a big expansion to California.
Police arrive at the Brinkley mansion but are thwarted by a call from the Governor of Kansas. Minnie begins to question whether the surgeries are real.
Fishbein and Maxwell look through death certificates in an effort to gather damaging information against Brinkley whose influence is only growing. What’s more, Fanny is more devoted to Brinkley than ever and continues to refuse Fishbein’s prescriptions, holding out hope for a cure in Brinkley’s response to her letters. Fishbein and Maxwell discover an alarming number of death certificates with Brinkley’s signature.
Brinkley is called upon the Kansas State Medical Board for a review of his license, which is ultimately revoked. Upon receiving word of this win, Fishbein is overjoyed, but when Brinkley announces he intends to run for state governor, Fishbein has a heart attack.
Brinkley, having lost the Kansas governorship and his U.S. radio station, moves to the U.S-Mexico border where he broadcasts out of Mexico and maintains a wildly successful Texas practice. Minnie is pregnant.
Fishbein realizes he must fight Brinkley a different way. He sets a trap, baiting Brinkley to sue him for libel in hopes he will finally be called to account in a court of law. Fanny and Fishbein have a confrontation over her faith in Brinkley but she for once takes the pills he prescribes.
Fishbein and Brinkley meet in court where Brinkley is exposed as a charlatan; Fanny’s heart is broken and she dies. Fishbein and Maxwell connect after Fanny’s funeral; Fishbein wonders if it was all worth it.
Brinkley and Minnie are left destitute. Minnie asks Brinkley to finally tell her the truth of how he came to perform the surgeries. “Like I told you,” he replies.
In a twisted re-enactment of the opening scene, Doctor Brinkley sees a new patient in his home examination room in Milford, Kansas. The doctor prescribes an unusual remedy called the “goat gland cure.” Though hesitant at first, Jim ultimately submits to Brinkley’s relentless bullying.