John Harvey Kellogg: The Controversial Scientist Who Became the Cereal King | History Hit

John Harvey Kellogg: The Controversial Scientist Who Became the Cereal King

Shannon Callahan

08 Apr 2022
John Harvey Kellogg (1852-1943)
Image Credit: Pictorial Press Ltd / Alamy Stock Photo

John Harvey Kellogg is widely credited with inventing corn flakes, the prepared breakfast cereal, but he holds a contentious place in history for the motivations behind this breakfast staple. Born in 1852, Kellogg lived for 91 years, and throughout his life, he promoted what he called ‘biological living’, a concept born out of his Seventh-day Adventist upbringing.

During his life, he was a popular and respected physician, even if some of his theories have been disproven today. While he remains most widely recognised for his cereal legacy, he also ran one of the most famous medical spas in America, promoted vegetarianism and celibacy, and advocated for eugenics.

Kelloggs Cornflakes are arguably the most iconic breakfast cereal, and for good reason. It was this product that launched breakfast cereal as we know and love it today.
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John Harvey Kellogg was a member of the Seventh-day Adventist church

Ellen White formed the Seventh-day Adventist Church in Battle Creek, Michigan in 1854 after apparently receiving visions and messages from God. This religion connected spiritual and physical health and required followers to adhere to strict guidelines for hygiene, diet and chastity. Members of this congregation were to have a vegetarian diet and were discouraged from consuming tobacco, coffee, tea and alcohol.

Moreover, overeating, wearing corsets and other ‘evils’ were believed to lead to unholy acts like masturbation and excessive sexual intercourse. John Harvey Kellogg’s family moved to Battle Creek in 1856 to be active members of the congregation, and this certainly impacted his worldview.

White saw Kellogg’s enthusiasm in the church and pressed him to be an important member, providing him with an apprenticeship in their publishing company’s print shop and sponsoring his education through medical school.

In 1876, Kellogg began managing the Battle Creek Sanitarium

After receiving his medical degree, Kellogg returned to Michigan and was asked by the White family to run what came to be known as the Battle Creek Sanitarium. This site became America’s most popular medical spa, growing from a health reform institute to a medical centre, spa and hotel.

This launched Kellogg into the public eye, making him a celebrity doctor who worked with several US presidents, and prominent figures such as Thomas Edison and Henry Ford.

Battle Creek Medical Surgical Sanitarium before 1902

Image Credit: Public Domain

Treatment options at this site were experimental for the time and many are no longer in practice. They included 46 different kinds of baths, like the continuous bath where a patient would remain in a bath for hours, days or even weeks to cure skin diseases, hysteria and mania.

He also gave patients enemas, using up to 15 quarts of water to cleanse colons, as opposed to the usual pint or two of liquid. He even opened his own health food company with his brother, W.K., to service the centre and provide patients with healthy foods, including corn flakes. At its peak, the site saw approximately 12-15,000 new patients each year.

Kellogg’s idea of ‘biological living’ targeted common ailments like indigestion

Kellogg believed himself to be fighting for improved wellness in America, advocating for what he referred to as ‘biological’ or ‘biologic’ living. Influenced by his upbringing, he promoted sexual abstinence, encouraged through a bland diet, as part of his programme.

As Kellogg was a passionate vegetarian, he encouraged a whole grain and plant-based diet to cure the most common ailment of the day, indigestion – or dyspepsia, as it was known at the time. He believed that most ailments could be treated through proper nutrition. For him, this meant whole grains and no meat. His dietary preferences mirror today’s paleo diet.

Kellogg created corn flakes to discourage masturbation

Kellogg firmly believed that masturbation caused many ailments, including memory loss, poor digestion, and even insanity. One of the methods Kellogg suggested for deterring this act was to eat a bland diet. Supposedly, eating bland foods would not incite passions, whereas spicy or well-seasoned foods would cause a reaction in people’s sexual organs that incited them to masturbate.

Kellogg believed that artificial foods were to blame for America’s indigestion problems. Only through increased exercise, more bathing, and a bland, vegetarian diet could people be healthy. Thus, the corn flake cereal was born in the 1890s to ease digestion issues, simplify breakfast and stop masturbation.

An advertisement for Kellogg’s Toasted Corn Flakes from 23 August 1919.

Image Credit: CC / The Oregonian

Though most nutritionists today would disagree that Kellogg’s corn flakes actually hold such nutritional and digestive benefits (not to mention the behavioural effects), the cereal was bought in as large a quantity as his food company could handle.

In addition to a bland diet, Kellogg was determined to deter masturbation using inhumane and harmful methods. In the event that someone could not stop masturbating, he would recommend circumcision without anaesthetic for boys or the application of carbolic acid to the clitoris for girls.

W.K. Kellogg brought breakfast cereal to the masses

Ultimately, John Harvey Kellogg cared more about his mission than profits. But his brother, W.K., was able to successfully scale the cereal into the company we know it as today, breaking away from his brother who he saw as stifling the company’s potential.

W.K. was successful in marketing the product because he added sugar, something his brother despised. Sweetening the corn flakes corrupted the product, according to John Harvey’s doctrine. However, by the 1940s, all cereals were pre-coated with sugar.

This product met the need for a quick, easy breakfast, which was a problem Americans faced since the Industrial Revolution, as they now worked outside of the home in factories and had less time for meals. W.K. was also incredibly successful in advertising the cereal, creating some of the first cartoon mascots to help brand the company.

Kellogg believed in eugenics and racial hygiene

In addition to Kellogg’s inhumane practices to deter masturbation, he was also a vocal eugenicist who founded the Race Betterment Foundation. This was intended to encourage people of ‘good pedigrees’ to maintain heritage by procreating exclusively with those who met his standards of racial hygiene.

His name and legacy live on through a popular cereal brand, but John Harvey Kellogg’s 91 years were marked by a quest for wellness which was prejudiced against those who did not meet his criteria for excellence.

Shannon Callahan