On this day in 1884, John Harvey Kellogg patents his revolutionary flaked breakfast cereals first known as Wheat Flakes and Corn Flakes. An avid health reformer, skilled surgeon, and physician to some, and a colossal quack to others, Kellogg’s extensive teachings and sanitarium supervision contributed to a new emphasis on the importance of a healthy diet, adequate exercise, and natural remedies near the end of the nineteenth century.
Kellogg (1852-1943) was born in Tyrone Township, a rural community within Livingston County, MI. The fourth of eight children to survive infancy, his farming parents John and Ada joined the Seventh-day Adventist movement, which in turn evolved from the mid-nineteenth-century religious sect called the “Millerites,” who were known for predicting the exact date and hour of Christ’s return. They moved their large family, which included five children from John’s previous marriage, to Jackson, and shortly thereafter to Battle Creek, the headquarters for the newly formed Adventist Church.
As a 12-year-old type-setter for Adventist publications and propaganda, young Kellogg was riveted by issues of health and hygiene, beginning his life-long fascination with lifestyle and diet, focusing on natural remedies, preventative medicine, and vegetarianism.
Whilst Kellogg planned to become a school teacher, and attended Michigan Normal College in Ypsilanti for a time, Adventist leaders became convinced that the church needed professionally trained doctors to affirm their views. Consequently, they chose several promising young Adventists, including Kellogg, to attend a five-month course at Dr. Russell Trall’s Hygeio-Therapeutic College in Florence Heights, New Jersey; sort of a steam-punk meets hot-tub. Ultimately, Kellogg graduated Bellevue Hospital Medical College in New York City in 1875 and returned to Battle Creek.
Kellogg began a career as a prolific writer of health propaganda at this juncture and published a vegetarian cookbook, “The Proper Diet for Man,” the scintillating million-seller “Plain Facts about Sexual Life,” and dozens of other books and articles. Calling his general dietary theory the Battle Creek Idea, Kellogg encouraged a diet void of all meat, sparing use of eggs, refined sugar, milk, and cheese, and complete abstinence from alcohol, tea, coffee, tobacco, and chocolate.
Kellogg also insisted oysters were covered in germs, bouillon was basically poisonous, coffee harmed the liver and most likely caused diabetes, and tea was the primary driver of insanity. Thus, for both scientific and religious reasons Kellogg insisted that dietary intake should be limited to primarily nuts, grains, legumes, and fruit.
In 1876 Kellogg agreed to take over the Western Health Reform Institute, an Adventist venture founded ten years earlier in Battle Creek to provide natural medical remedies. This soon became the famous Battle Creek Sanitarium, which treated upwards of 200,000 patients, including Henry Ford, John D. Rockefeller, Harvey Firestone, J. C. Penney, and C. W. Barron.
Essentially inventing corn and wheat flakes by mistake from oven left-overs at “The San” with his brother W. K., Kellogg intended to use in his new invention for chewing exercises. The San guests soon realized that the wheat flakes were even better with milk! The popularity of the product, known first as Granose and later as Toasted Wheat Flakes, soon spread and in the first year, Kellogg sold over 100,000 pounds of cereal.
The brothers later applied the same flaking process to corn and rice. Although highly successful, the Kelloggs were not the first to market dry cereal. In 1893 Henry D. Perky of Denver, Colorado, developed a machine that shredded wheat, which he appropriately named “Shredded Wheat.” After the success of Toasted Wheat Flakes, numerous imitators flooded the market with new versions of breakfast cereals.
Although most failed, some, including former sneaky San patient Charles W. Post, created lasting products that competed for the cereal market. Nonetheless, profits from cereal sales along with book sales made Kellogg, who took no salary as superintendent of The San, a wealthy man, and funded the elaborate 20-room home in which the Kelloggs resided and reared 42 foster children.
Kellogg’s progressive theories did have a darker side; Kellogg warned that many types of sexual activity, including “excesses” that couples could be drawn to within marriage, such as penetration, were against nature, and therefore extremely unhealthy. More shocking still, as a leader of the anti-masturbation movement, Kellogg promoted extreme measures to prevent this unholy habit. His methods for the “rehabilitation” of masturbators included measures up to the point of mutilation without anesthetic, on both sexes. He was a staunch advocate of circumcising young boys to curb masturbation and applying carbolic acid to a young woman’s clitoris.
The San was finally forced to shut down by 1938, $3 million in debt. Kellogg himself continued to pursue new projects, but in 1942 he developed acute bronchitis and died of pneumonia at age 91; his 62-year marriage to Ella Kellogg remained unconsummated.
Perhaps if the world had heeded Kellogg, lived on legumes, and abjured coffee, penetration and masturbation, this confounded Covid-19 never would have come?
And here, finally, endeth the flaky lesson.