The Make-Believe Doctors (1993)
Robert C. Derbyshire, M.D.
Let me tell you a true story. Freddie Brant was born in Louisiana in 1926 and was forty-three years old at the time of my tale. Reared in poverty, he quit school after the fifth grade. After four years in the Army during World War II he found that jobs were scarce for a man with only a fifth grade education, so he joined the paratroops. In 1949, along with a fellow paratrooper, Brant was sentenced to seven years in the penitentiary for bank robbery. He began his “medical education” working in the prison hospital. After he was released, Brant continued his education by working for four years as a laboratory and x-ray technician for Dr. Reid L. Brown of Chattanooga, Tennessee. There he picked up not only more medical lore but also the diplomas of his employer.
Brant was now ready to begin the practice of medicine. Assuming the identity of Dr. Reid L. Brown, he moved to Texas where he obtained a license by endorsement and served for three years on the staff of the State Hospital at Terrell. He then resigned and took his wife on a vacation trip. Stopping for a Coca Cola in the small village of Groveton, Texas, Brant treated the injured leg of a child. He found that Groveton had long been without a doctor and its people were clamoring for medical care. “Dr. Brown” soon became established as the town physician and as a community leader.
Freddie Brant, alias Reid L. Brown, M.D., might still be carrying on his thriving practice in Groveton, Texas, had he not run afoul of a computer. By coincidence he ordered drugs from the same pharmaceutical firm in Louisiana that was used by the real Dr. Reid Brown. The computer gagged when it discovered orders on the same day from physicians with identical names in Groveton and Chattanooga. Following an investigation, Freddie Brant was charged with forgery and with false testimony that he was a doctor.
The exposure of Freddie Brant caused great consternation in Groveton, but its citizens still rallied around their “doctor.” Many were the testimonials to his skill. According to one news report, the list of his patients included some of Groveton’s leading citizens as well as farmers, loggers, and welfare patients. The druggist said that many cases of hardship were caused by the Freddie’s arrest. A particularly glowing testimonial came from a farmer who said:
My wife has been sick for fourteen years. We’ve been to doctors in Lufkin, Crockett, and Trinity, and he did her more good than any of ’em. She was all drawed up, bent over, you ought to have seen her. He’s brought her up and now she’s milking cows and everything.
The citizens of Groveton remained loyal to Brant, and a grand jury refused to indict him. Authorities then brought him to trial in another county for perjury, but the case ended in a hung jury with eight members voting for acquittal. Chicago’s American reported that justice was thwarted because of a “lava flow of testimonials from Groveton and Terrell to the effect that Freddie Brant was a prince of a medical man, license or no license.” In an unkind cut, the report stated that the people of Groveton should have known that Reid Brown was not a doctor because he did too many things wrong. For example, he made house calls for five dollars and charged only three dollars for an office visit. He approved of Medicare and would drive for miles to visit a patient, often without fee if the patient was poor. Besides, his handwriting was legible.
What were the secrets of Freddie Brant’s success as an impersonator? They were many, but the main ones were his readiness to refer any potentially complicated case to nearby towns, a personality which inspired confidence, and a willingness to take time to listen to his patients.
From 1969 through 1978, I found forty-seven impostors who were “successful” enough to be worthy of study. This figure did not include fly-by-night impersonators who pretended to be physicians in order to cash worthless checks or engage in confidence games. Most of these are exposed within a few hours or days.
Let us take a look at the typical successful impostor. His medical background might consist of a tour of duty as a medical corpsman in the Army or as a pharmacist’s mate in the Navy. He might have served as a hospital orderly or as a laboratory technician. He might have obtained his medical education as a patient in a mental hospital. The sole medical background of one was service as a hospital elevator operator. By associating with physicians, the impostor learns enough medical jargon to fool the unwary. He must also have a good memory and a persuasive manner. Curiously, I have found no records of women medical impostors.
A surprising number of impostors had no medical background whatever. Anthony Vecchiarello and his brother, Louis, were two such practitioners. Together with Marino J. Maturo, they operated a thriving clinic in Washington, D.C., for five years before the authorities finally caught up with them. Anthony had been a mechanic. Louis, among other things, had sold burglar alarms. Maturo, having dropped out of the University of Miami after failing chemistry, zoology, mathematics, and Italian, had worked as an x-ray technician in Florida. All three had obtained full medical licenses using forged Mexican credentials that had never been checked by the authorities. Two of them had also been admitted to membership in the district medical society, which soon began to refer patients to them.
State Hospital Opportunities
State hospitals have provided a pathway to fraudulent medical practice. One of the most fascinating examples is that of Oscar Monte Levy, a man with no medical background who was hired as superintendent of a state mental hospital in West Virginia. Levy’s credentials were based solely upon a diploma stolen from a Dr. Menendez, a graduate of the University of Havana Medical School. This man might have enjoyed a long and profitable career as a hospital administrator. But he resigned after nine months and moved to another region where he obtained a position as staff psychiatrist in a state hospital mainly on the basis of recommendations from the first state. However, his second career was cut short when his new colleagues became suspicious of his manner and exposed him. Obviously Levy committed a grave error by resigning his high position as a hospital superintendent. I could not learn his reasons for doing so. Possibly he became tired of administrative duties and yearned to practice clinical psychiatry.
Whatever mild amusement I derived from the story of “Dr. Menendez” soon turned to dismay as I read on. The director of the Department of Health in the state where Menendez was first employed, whose duty it was to check the credentials of this impostor, said that the state hospital was hiring certain foreign doctors on a temporary basis. Obviously, the director’s examination of credentials had been entirely superficial.
When Levy was finally exposed, he was sentenced to three years in prison—not for impersonating a doctor, but for what the authorities considered a more serious crime. He had been so indiscreet as to marry a West Virginia girl while still wed to a woman from New York, and was therefore guilty of bigamy.
While the authorities in neither state should have been taken in by “Dr. Menendez,” there might have been extenuating circumstances, all too familiar to members of boards of medical examiners. During the 1970s, there were pressures in this country to resettle foreign physicians, particularly those who were thought to be fugitives from communism. Second, a shortage of qualified applicants for staff positions at state hospitals resulted in standards being lowered to permit physicians unqualified for regular licenses to fill these positions. Third, highly placed politicians often interceded for them. These three factors combined to place such pressure on boards of medical examiners that it is remarkable that they resisted as effectively as they did.
Despite these problems, I was able to find only six impostors who had entered practice by way of state hospitals. No doubt others had gone undetected.
Length of Practice
How long do impostors flourish? At least twenty-two are known to have practiced for more than a year. There were two whose hoaxes lasted for twenty years. Perhaps the all-time champion was “Dr. J.D. Phillips,” who practiced medicine in various places for thirty years. According to an article in Coronet (August, 1953), he fooled not only patients in eleven states, but also the United States government; several county and state health departments; and dozens of respectable physicians, nurses, and administrators in various hospitals. According to Coronet, “Rarely has a faker been unmasked more often and less permanently. Certainly no one has gone to so much trouble to remain loyal to his profession.” His medical knowledge was gained from the doctor in his home town with whom he made rounds. Said “Dr. Phillips” without undue modesty: “I went around with him and absorbed it all. I have a photographic memory and am not exactly dumb.”
“Dr. Phillips” served time in various penitentiaries for passing bad checks and for defrauding hotels. He used these periods to study in the prison libraries. Finally his background was so firm that he was entrusted with surgery at the Maryland State House of Correction. According to the physician in charge, Phillips was “literally a good resident.” At some time during this period he was able to steal a medical license from a physician long inactive because of illness. He then had the nerve to send an affidavit to his adopted medical school that he had lost his M.D. diploma. He was promptly sent a duplicate.
The downfall of “Dr. Phillips” was finally brought about by his greed and an alert insurance agent. Following an automobile accident in which he suffered injuries to his neck and arm, he was sued for $600. He countered with a $40,000 suit, including $35,000 to compensate him for his inability to practice medicine. The insurance agent, disturbed by Phillips’ dirty fingernails, questioned his story, and he was exposed in court. His medical career ended when he was sentenced to fifteen to twenty years for perjury.
How are impostors exposed? Those whose medical careers last only a few months are so inept that they give themselves away. But exposure of the “experts” has proven difficult and often comes about by accident. Maturo and the Vecchiarello brothers were exposed by chance because of an investigation by the U.S. Attorney in Washington. While looking into an unrelated matter, he became suspicious of flaws in their forged Mexican credentials. Further investigation resulted in their indictments for fraud. But the matter did not end there. The three impostors were so brash that they obtained a federal court order that allowed them to continue in practice until they were finally brought to trial and convicted six months later. Needless to say, the trial caused great embarrassment to the licensing authorities of the District of Columbia and stimulated them to adopt more stringent procedures for the issuance of medical licenses.
The notorious “Dr. Frank,” was responsible for at least five deaths in Chicago, A former mental patient who had taken over the practice of a vacationing doctor, Frank was exposed by a nurse of whom he became enamored. She often made house calls with him and noticed that he was unsure about the doses of drugs and mispronounced some medical terms. Frank’s downfall came about because he became too ardent in wooing the nurse and tried to choke her when she resisted his charms. She investigated his credentials, found that he was not a high-ranking graduate of Northwestern University as he had claimed, and reported him to the police. When they arrested Frank, they found a gun and a large quantity of morphine in his doctor’s bag. He was sentenced to three years in the penitentiary for illegal possession of drugs.
Surprisingly few impostors have credentials in the form of medical school diplomas or state medical licenses. Of the forty-seven impostors in my study, only twelve had bothered to steal or forge such credentials. This oversight is amazing because there was a well-known firm in California that specialized in producing phony documents. At least one impostor was familiar with this company. He not only ordered complete medical credentials, but also turned himself into an author. Removing the title pages from a respectable book, he had the book rebound with his name on the cover. His fatal mistake was in failing to realize that he might be asked by a colleague to discuss the book’s contents!
The attitude of some impostors seems to be, “Why bother to obtain phony diplomas when they are not necessary?” I am astonished at the number of hospitals that have accepted applicants for positions without first examining their credentials. This is not confined to state hospitals. A glaring example is the case of “Dr. David William Baker,” who claimed to have graduated from Temple University Medical School in 1962. From a state hospital in Idaho he went to Seattle where he worked in two hospitals for a total of three months, including two months in the emergency room of one of them. A hospital spokesman quoted in a Seattle newspaper said that Baker had been hired on the recommendation of a doctor who had known him when he worked at the blood bank. The hospital detected the impostor only when it learned that the AMA had sent out a circular declaring that a man named Baker was posing as a doctor. The administrator’s justification for employing him was that Baker claimed his credentials were in transit and he was preparing to appear before the state licensing board. Hospital officials weakly contended that Baker was not a member of the staff but worked in the emergency room where he was always under the supervision of another physician.
Attitudes toward Impostors
As I studied case histories, I was struck by how many people were gullible enough to lend money to impostors. I was astonished by the readiness of bankers, whom I had always regarded as paragons of caution, to help impostors start their medical practice. In one instance a physician was the victim when he lent an impostor a considerable sum. Equally fair game are citizens of many small towns with desperate shortages of doctors, who will lionize any presentable individual who claims to be a physician.
Once in practice, of course, the impostor relies on the fact that most patients who do not look seriously ill will recover by themselves. This enables him to fool many people into thinking that he has given them treatment. If he is friendly, if he shows interest and compassion, and if he quickly refers to specialists those patients who do seem quite ill, the impostor is likely to develop a loyal patient following. In fact, many people will come to “swear by him.” So much so that even when he is exposed as a fraud, they will defend him and be grievously hurt because the authorities have removed their “trusted family physician.”
Typical is the case of the fraud who, for some six years, successfully practiced in a small town in New York State. His following of devoted patients was large; he even won the esteem of his colleagues who frequently called upon him for consultations. When he was finally exposed by the Board of Medical Examiners, the anguished cries of his devoted followers could be heard all the way across the Hudson River. They even circulated petitions to prevent him from being banished. Nevertheless he was brought to justice and convicted of fraud.
The reactions of these people and of those in Groveton, Texas, to the unmasking of Freddie Brant are by no means isolated examples. Such reactions are particularly prevalent in small towns. One can only speculate as to why these victims of hoaxes adopt such defensive attitudes. Some, like the victims of other confidence games, are embarrassed about being taken in. Some may feel a need to justify their faith in the impostor to avoid the appearance of stupidity in the eyes of their neighbors. Others may believe they have actually been helped.
Another difficulty in exposing medical impostors stems from the indifference of district attorneys. Apparently these law enforcers are not enthusiastic about pursuing people whom they regard as petty criminals, and this is how impostors are regarded in most states. Only in a few states is the practice of medicine without a license defined as a felony; in the rest it is a misdemeanor. I remember one instance in which my board of medical examiners discovered a man who was practicing without a license. On two different occasions the investigator for the board obtained receipted bills, copies of prescriptions, and samples of drugs the man had been dispensing, certainly enough evidence for the conviction of this fraud. But the district attorney showed no interest in prosecuting him. It was not until some two years later, after the impostor had been responsible for the death of a patient, that the state police arrested him on a charge of manslaughter for which he was convicted and sentenced to five years in prison.
The attitude of newspapers toward some impostors is interesting. While they may make every effort to report the facts accurately, their stories sometimes contain a strong underlying note of amusement. In the case just cited, after the impostor had been arrested and charged with manslaughter, the local paper printed a feature in its Sunday edition based upon an interview in the felon’s jail cell. This took the form of a human interest story that depicted the impostor as an amusing eccentric and all but ignored the charge of manslaughter.
Up to a point, many of the tales of impersonation are amusing, provided the reader is not one of the authorities who has been duped. But the time must come when one has to be serious, particularly in light of the dangers that impostors pose to the public. Freddie Brant, alias “Dr. Brown,” tried to justify his conduct by saying, “I never lost a patient.” Didn’t he? How could he know? Another famous impostor, M.L. Langford of Jasper, Missouri, pointed out in his defense that he performed no surgery and referred any patient who might have complications. But could he always recognize complications or foresee them? Impostors do kill people, albeit not always as dramatically as the notorious Dr. Frank, who persuaded a physician to help him obtain a listing with a medical referring service.
The harm caused by make-believe doctors has not been limited to physical trauma. This was brought forcibly to my attention by a resident of an Eastern city—whom I shall call Mr. A—who sent me the following account. In 1977, he read a newspaper account of an impostor named William J. Lott, who practiced for thirty days in the Maryland Penitentiary. The story also mentioned a similar case, that of Freddie Brant, alias Dr. Reid L. Brown. This news jolted Mr. A because he was a former patient of Brant’s but had no idea that he was an impostor. In 1965, when Mr. A was sixteen years old, he had been truant from school. His stepfather decided he was insane and managed to have him committed to the State Hospital in Terrell, Texas. There he was placed under the tender care of “Dr. Reid L. Brown,” who prescribed a variety of drugs and subjected him to electroshock therapy. “Dr. Brown” also signed various legal documents concerning his diagnosis. Mr. A wanted desperately to have the diagnosis of insanity expunged from the record and asked for my help. All I could do was to refer him to a good lawyer.
What motivates these people to impersonate doctors? The immediate answer of the cynic is that they do it to make money. While it is true that some yearn for the imagined rich and easy life of the doctor, this is not the only answer. Some envy the physician’s authority and social position. Others are deranged, many having served terms in mental hospitals. Freddie Brant simply said, “I always wanted to be a doctor.” Robert Crichton, in his fascinating book The Great Impostor (Random House, 1959) describes the career of Fred Demara, Jr., who adopted many identities including that of Trappist monk and Surgeon Lieut. Joseph Cyr of the Royal Canadian Navy. In the latter identity, he performed heroic feats of surgery aboard a destroyer before his final exposure. According to Crichton, psychiatrists have labeled the impostor a borderline schizophrenic with a document syndrome and something like histrionic genius. Demara expressed himself this way: “I am a superior sort of liar. I don’t tell any truth at all, so my story has a unity of parts, a structural integrity. It sounds more like the truth than truth itself.”
So far I have confined myself to the methods of medical impostors. Now let us look at how they might be controlled. As with disease, the best strategy is obviously prevention. Several agencies are responsible for the proper screening of physicians. The most important of these are the state boards of medical examiners, the medical societies, and the hospitals. The primary duty of the licensing boards is to ensure that all who are licensed are qualified. More careful screening of applicants for positions in state hospitals should be carried out, preferably by the boards. Documents must never be accepted on faith! No matter how convincing an applicant appears, his documents must be verified at their sources. The investigations should be systematic, beginning with insistence upon completion of a detailed application blank, which must include a notarized statement from the applicant that he is indeed the person whose credentials he is presenting. It is important that the physician be required to present at least two photographs, one to be affixed to the application, the other to be filed for future reference in case of a question of identity. As an added precaution, the board might insist that the photograph be affixed to the application form before it is returned to the medical school for certification or, in the case of licensure by endorsement, to the board issuing the original license. Thus the photograph can be compared with photos filed previously.
Another important method of preventing licensure of impostors is the use of the personal interview. In states that license large numbers of physicians it might be difficult for the administrative officer to interview them all. In these states the interviews could be divided among the members of the board. Although opinions differ about the value of the interview, an experienced person should be able to learn much by observing a candidate. Examiners can be alert to danger signals such as poor personal grooming, vague answers to specific questions concerning medical subjects, and failure to identify properly professors in the school from which the applicant claims to have graduated.
Still another method of detecting impostors is the requirement that all applicants for licensure be fingerprinted. Many people feel that professionals should not be subjected to such an indignity. But this is not as drastic a requirement as many think, and most applicants submit to it with good grace. After all, fingerprinting is required in applications for many jobs, particularly those associated with the federal government. Robert Sprecher, writing about licensure problems in the legal profession (Federal Bulletin 55:188–200, 1968), made an interesting observation. The mere requirement that applicants be fingerprinted will encourage them to admit to previous conviction of crimes. For example, bar examinations were given in Michigan and Illinois at the same time. Michigan had 281 applicants, Illinois 273. Both states asked applicants whether they had ever been charged with a crime or arrested. In Michigan, where fingerprints were required, twenty-eight people admitted to previous arrests or convictions. In Illinois, which did not require fingerprints, only two made such admissions. Obviously, fingerprinting is a deterrent to false statements.
Years ago, when the New Mexico Board of Medical Examiners began to require fingerprinting, the cards had to be sent through the local chief of police for processing by the Federal Bureau of Investigation. The chief’s response to my request was one of tolerant amusement: “If the doctor wants to play detective, I suppose we must help him. But I am sure we will not turn up anything.” Two weeks later, having received some forty FBI reports, he appeared at my office waving two dossiers excitedly. One applicant had a record of nine arrests in New Jersey for crimes that ranged in seriousness from petty larceny to armed robbery. The second had served five years in the penitentiary of another state for embezzlement. While this incident did not involve physician impersonators, it does show what can be accomplished by requiring fingerprints of every applicant for licensure. Impostors frequently have criminal records. Even such a smooth confidence man as Freddie Brant might have been deterred or exposed by this method.
If the practice of medicine without a license were a felony instead of a misdemeanor, as it is in most states—and if district attorneys could be persuaded to take their duties more seriously—some impostors might think twice before establishing their practices.
Though medical impostors are rare, and some regard them with amusement, we must not forget that they are con men and potential killers. Medical examining boards, hospitals, medical societies, and concerned individuals must take every precaution to keep their number to a minimum.
Dr. Derbyshire, a surgeon who died in 1987, was a leading authority on the licensing and discipline of physicians. For many years, he served as secretary-treasurer of the New Mexico Board of Medical Examiners and president of the Federation of State Medical Boards of the United States. This article, originally published in the 1980 edition of The Health Robbers, was updated in 1993 by Dr. Stephen Barrett. It illustrates how individuals with little or no scientific training may convince large numbers of people that they are skilled and caring healers. Since 1980, medical licensing procedures have become more stringent and very few cases of “successful” medical impostors have come to light. However, the number of bogus “nutritionists” and other nonscientific practitioners has increased sharply.
This page was posted on February 25, 2005.