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Will the Real Dr. Brown Please Stand Up? – Podcast #55

Have ever seen the 1991 movie Doc Hollywood? While not one of history’s greatest films, I must admit that I did enjoy it because I found it to be reminiscent of many of Hollywood’s innocent, feel-good movies of yesteryear.

Now if you don’t remember the flick, let me give you the briefest of overviews: Michael J. Fox plays a big city doctor who wrecks his car while driving through a small, rural town. Forced to do community service as punishment, the townspeople fall in love with the doctor and he ultimately falls equally in love with the town and the charm of its people and chooses to stay.

I haven’t seen the movie in years, so I hope I remembered that correctly…

Now the story that I am about to tell you is quite similar, but as with most of the stories that I tell, there is something highly unusual about it.

So let’s zip back through time to a sunny day in July of 1967. Here we find a 43-year-old doctor named Reed L. Brown driving through the small town of Groveton, Texas – population 1,187. Brown, along with his 23-year-old wife Sharon (married June 1965) and their young daughter decided to stop at a local drugstore for refreshments. That’s when 12-year-old Randy Worsham showed up with a badly gashed leg. The town had been without a doctor for months and the nearest medical services were more than 20-miles away. Doc Brown jumped into action. He patched the boy up and the townspeople begged him to stay, which he did.

It turns out that Groveton had been unable to hold on to a doctor since their former doctor moved away nine years earlier. Others had come for short periods of time, but none chose to stay. One turned out to be a drug addict and ultimately died from a gunshot wound. Four others were foreigners and the locals complained that they had problems understanding their thick accents. Doctor Brown was offered the same deal as all of the other doctors. He received 6 months of free rent and an empty dry-goods store to set up shop in.

Doc Brown was the best thing that had happened to this small town in quite some time. He loved his job and the people loved him. He treated every patient as an individual and saw 40-50 patients each day. He worked 10 to 12 hours each day and it didn’t matter if it was day or night, a weekend or a holiday.

Soon word spread to the surrounding communities about this great new doctor and his practice rapidly grew. The waiting room was always full. He provided medical care to the sheriff, city officials, businessmen, farmers, loggers, and welfare patients.

The doctor found a malignant tumor in the neck of a man that the Army doctors had missed. He saved the life of one man with congestive heart failure. Best of all, his fees were relatively low – he charged $5 for a house call, $3 for an office visit.

Doc Brown was given staff privileges at the county hospital and was asked by health officials to assist in a measles vaccination drive. He became a member of the Lions Club and spearheaded a drive for the building of a local hospital. He delivered 4 babies in one month. When there was a critical or terminal case that he was not able to deal with, he referred the patient to physicians in Lufkin, which was 35 miles away, or to specialists in Galveston.

But, as I had initially said, Doc Brown was not Doc Hollywood. Something was about to go wrong. Five months after setting up practice in Groveton, his medical career came to an abrupt end on December 8th of 1967. That was when the Texas Rangers, along with an official from the state board of medical examiners, walked into his office and handed him a subpoena.

You see, Doctor Brown was not a doctor at all. His real name is Freddie Michael Brant. He was born in Roseland, Louisiana on September 5, 1923. While real doctors spend what seems like an eternity in medical school, Freddie Brant’s formal education stopped in the 5th grade.

Freddie Brant.
Freddie Brant. Image appeared on page 32 of the January 12, 1968 publication of Life.

That doesn’t mean that he didn’t know anything about medicine. While serving as a paratrooper in the US Army during WWII, Brant received first aid training. He also obtained a high school equivalency diploma.

On top of having very little education, it was also learned that Brant had been an escapee from a Louisiana prison. He had been sentenced to a 12-year term for robbing a bank in 1949. Brant was determined to turn his life around and spent his time in prison very wisely. He read quite a bit, took correspondence courses, and studied law. More importantly, he was able to capitalize on his Army first aid training by assisting visiting doctors in the prison hospital and was often called upon to sew up knife slashes and other minor wounds. He was paroled on May 11, 1956.

At this point, he moved to Chattanooga and obtained employment at the Physicians and Surgeons Hospital. While there, he legitimately worked as a laboratory and x-ray technician for a number of doctors, including Dr. Reed L. Brown – the real Doc Brown. Dr. Brown allowed him to assist with deliveries, surgery, and examinations – although Dr. Brown later claimed that this was totally untrue.

Brant made photostatic – there’s a term that you don’t hear much anymore – copies of both the real Doctor Brown’s medical license and his medical degree.  Brant worked with Doctor Brown for four years – from 1958 to 1962 when Doc Brown left the hospital to set up his own practice.

Two years later, Brant came across an ad for psychologists and medical doctors at the Terrell State Hospital in Texas. Knowing that he could never get a job there as an uneducated ex-convict, Freddie Brant assumed the role of Doctor Reed L. Brown and secured a position as a psychiatric intern there in 1964. Two years later, based on both the photocopies of Doctor Brown’s documents and the time that he had worked at the hospital, the State of Texas granted Brant a license to practice medicine on February 15, 1966.

He worked at the hospital for three years. During this time, he signed more than 100 certificates of commitment and testified in a number of court cases. Brant was certain that he saved a number of lives while working there. He felt that the mentally ill in his ward responded well to his treatments and many were ultimately discharged from the hospital.

Shortly after leaving the hospital, he took that trip through Groveton where he successfully worked as a licensed medical doctor until that day when the Texas Rangers walked through his door with that subpoena. Amazingly, his wife never suspected that he wasn’t a real doctor. Yet, Brant lived for years in fear that his deception would be uncovered.

How he was caught is quite interesting. Brant made the mistake of ordering drugs for his patients from the identical pharmaceutical firm that the real Dr. Brown used. And they happened to be using a newfangled device called – get this – a computer! The computer discovered that they were billing Dr. Brown to two different addresses in two different states. Confused, they contacted the real Doctor Brown, who, in turn, immediately called the medical authorities in Texas.

The warrant for his arrest was from Kaufman County, TX – that’s where the Terrell hospital is located. He was charged with perjuring himself by swearing under oath during court hearings that he was a medical doctor and for forging documents. He was released four days later on $10,000 bond (that’s $65,000 in today’s money). The money was raised by supporters back in Groveton.

Even though he was not a real doctor, the people of Groveton still wanted him back. The townspeople rushed to his side and offered him support in any way that they could. Signed petitions requested that the courts take into consideration all of the good that Freddie Brant had done for the town. Some suggested that they raise money to send him to medical school, but that was impossible due to his criminal record. Others suggested that he come back to the town as an administrator or technician when the hospital finally opened. He returned back to Groveton one-week after his arrest to a hero’s welcome.

It was estimated that Brant saw between 2 to 3,000 patients while playing doctor in Groveton. Amazingly, there was not one report of a single medical mistake made by him. Mrs. William Bock, a licensed pharmacist at the town’s only drug store was quoted as saying “I’ve filled prescriptions for a good many years and everything he prescribed seemed right to me.” She added, “If there were any adverse reactions, I never knew about them.”

While out on bail for perjury and forgery charges in Kaufman County, Brant learned that the grand jury in Trinity County, where Groveton is located, had chosen not to press charges against him. He later learned that this was incorrect. It turns out that all 12 members of the grand jury were not present at the time, so they could not act on the case. They later reconvened and handed down two indictments. Back in jail, he posted a bond of $5000 for the charge of forgery and an additional $2000 for practicing without a license.

While awaiting trial in both counties, he was offered three jobs in Dallas, all based on his real qualifications. In February 1968, he chose to take a position as a laboratory technician at a Dallas clinic.

The trial in Kaufman county got underway in May of 1968. Five members of the jury said that they had each received a 4-page unsigned letter of support. Each document said to pass it on to a friend and was signed either “Citizens for Freddie Brant” or “The People of Kaufman County” Can we say…Jury tampering? But the judge let the case go on. The jury became deadlocked and the judge declared a mistrial.

Back in Kaufman County, Brant was offered a plea deal. The lawyers had agreed that Brant would plead guilty in exchange for a fine for practicing medicine without a license. He would be given a probationary sentence for the forgery charge. Yet, Brant refused this deal and chose to plead innocent.

This may or may not have been a bad move on his part, but I was unable to find any further mentions of the case in the press. While some recent authors claim that no local jury would convict him at the time and he got off scot-free, I did find one contradictory document. A man named Robert Bruce had been convicted of murdering his wife in 1965 and declared insane. After being sent to a mental hospital, Dr. Reid Brown – who we now know as Freddie Brant – arranged his release from the institution. The document states that he “was subsequently determined to be an imposter and was convicted of perjury and practicing medicine without a recorded license. He was given a sentence of five years under the perjury charge.”

When I tell this story to others, they wonder how Freddie Brant was able to get away with it for so long. My guess is that for what he lacked in medical education, he made up for with just plain common sense, a willingness to listen to his patients, sympathy, working long hours, generosity, and an abundance of confidence.

We can be certain that Freddie Brant never played doctor again. He was 83 years old when he passed away on October 30, 2006.

Useless? Useful? I’ll leave that for you to decide.

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