The well-known Kellogg’s cereal brand came from the work of not one — but two — brilliant inventors. The Kellogg brothers, Dr. John Harvey Kellogg and Will Keith Kellogg worked as partners, then rivals, to create a wellness and food empire that changed the way we eat.
Dr. John Harvey Kellogg was a precocious child who grew into an ambitious adult — favored by powerful religious leaders and propped up by his medical achievements. His hardworking younger brother, Will Keith Kellogg, built the cereal business as he worked alongside Dr. John Harvey Kellogg. Their rivalry, combined with Will’s vision for world-wide Kellogg’s cereal distribution, tore the brothers apart and separated their fortunes.
1. Dietary Regulations from The Seventh Day Adventists
The story of Kellogg’s cereal starts with Seventh-Day Adventist’s dietary restrictions. During the late 1800s, the typical American’s diet was low in fiber while high in fat and sugar. As a result, constipation, diarrhea, and other bowel diseases were common.
Dr. John Harvey Kellogg suffered from an anal fissure in early childhood. As his family devoted themselves to the church, John adopted conservative dietary regulations. This eventually led to a partnership between Dr. John Harvey Kellogg and the church. Seventh-Day Adventist Leaders, particularly the White Family, actually paid for his medical education — leading to his appointment as superintendent of the Battle Creek Sanitarium.
John brought his younger brother Will to act as his assistant. Although John demeaned his brother, most accounts credit Will with efficiently running the sprawling hospital and wellness business. Together, the brothers promoted various health practices that John believed would improve digestion, including eating Kellogg’s cereal for breakfast.
2. An Accidental Discovery
As the superintendent of the Battle Creek Sanitarium, John Harvey Kellogg encouraged patients to eat a bland diet of high-fiber foods. However, the meals and snacks prepared on-site were difficult to eat or time-consuming to produce.
In the breakfast market, Dr. James Caleb Jackson was already selling his “Granula” invention from nuggets of bran-rich Graham flour. Inspired by Jackson’s product, John Kellogg and his brother Will worked together to create various wheat-based granola snacks by pushing their dough through rollers and baking.
According to legend, the brothers were in the process of cooking the wheat when they were called away. The next day, they decided to force the stale grain through the rollers anyway. Each wheat berry flattened into a flake that baked into beautiful, crispy pieces. Eventually, this became toasted flakes.
3. The Masturbation Myth
Speculation over Dr. John Harvey Kellogg’s writings and the Seventh Day Adventist belief system created myths about the cereal as a masturbation antidote. Dr. Kellogg promoted both sexual restraint and bland diets.
His time as a medical student reinforced his STD concerns, as he treated extreme cases of syphilis and other venereal diseases. Dr. Kellogg never consummated his marriage, adopting over 70 children, and kept to a strict high-fiber diet in an effort to have 8 or more odorless bowel movements each day. John’s views on diet and sex were mostly connected by the concept of temperance than actually inventing the cereal to prevent masturbation.
Although his personal habits were outside the mainstream, it seems unlikely that he thought Kellogg’s cereal would change people’s sexual behavior. Instead, Dr. Kellogg’s writings prescribed more barbaric means of preventing “self-abuse”, including sewing together the tip of a man’s foreskin or dripping carbolic acid on a woman’s clitoris.
4. Linking Health to Diet and Exercise
Dr. John Harvey Kellogg’s biggest contribution to medicine was linking health outcomes to diet and exercise. His training as a doctor, and his role at the Sanitarium, gave him a platform to spread his view of whole-body wellness.
From ages 23 to 88, he treated thousands of patients and performed 22,000 operations. During his time, he set a record by performing 162 successive abdominal surgeries without a fatality, during a time when 15-20% of patients usually died from surgical complications.
He also invented well-known exercise and health equipment, like the vibrating belt, the tanning booth, and a universal dynamometer for testing grip strength. His health inventions were actually included as part of the upscale gym accommodations on the ill-fated Titanic.
Additionally, he wrote 50 books and held over 5,000 public lectures. This level of influence reshaped how people thought about the link between diet, exercise, and overall health.
5. Through the Fire
Not long after the Sanitarium started operating, it caught fire. Dr. John Kellogg was actually out of town at the time and Will Kellogg managed to direct the 400 staff members and patients to safety. Most made it out alive.
Rebuilding the Sanitarium pushed Dr. John Kellogg into an ambitious phase. He convinced the Adventists to take out a large loan on the basis that Christ was likely to return before they had to pay it back. The sprawling, rebuilt Sanitarium pleased John while his peacocking angered the Adventist Elders. A series of disputes led to John’s ouster from the church, although he personally adhered to the same religious values throughout his life.
6. First to Invent and Last to Cash In
The Kellogg brothers fought about their cereal invention. John Harvey Kellogg refused to advertise the product and only allowed Will to sell the flakes to patients. They even started a mail-order business for guests after they left the Sanitarium.
In the meantime, several other groups, including Post Cereal, made copies of their product after discovering it at the Sanitarium. Cereal factories popped up all around that community. At one point, Battle Creek was jokingly referred to as a cereal capital of the U.S.A.
Eventually, Will persuaded John to let him buy the business and launch the Battle Creek Toasted Corn Flake Company in 1906. Will renamed it to the Kellogg Toasted Corn Flake Company in 1909. He changed to the Kellogg Company in 1922 and finally started to make money off the invention.
7. The Family Rift
Although the brothers invented Kellogg’s cereal together, their split created a family rift. Initially, John held the patents to corn flake cereal and controlled the family name.
After Will bought the cereal business, he left the doctor to run the Sanitarium alone. Will started several factorites, his wealth grew, and John’s jealousy deepened.
As Will’s brand Kellogg’s cereal turned a profit, John decided to get back into selling cereal — using the same business name and similar packaging. Will sued John, and eventually won, deepening their rift. This event combined with their lifelong rivalry kept them from ever reconciling.
8. Inverse Fortunes
Will Kellogg’s business plan was aggressive — securing real estate for his factories, buying large billboards in major cities, and investing in new technology to speed up production. Will Kellogg’s forward-thinking caused him to adopt several modern business concepts — such as business management. Although he faced several setbacks, like a factory fire within his first year of operating, Will Kellogg created a global company that persists today.
By contrast, the Sanitarium never functioned properly after Will Kellogg left. The staff fell into disarray and patients complained about both disorganization and sanitation. Dr. John Kellogg brought in several consultants to evaluate the management. However, Dr. John Kellogg rejected all recommendations that he appoint a second-in-command. By never truly replacing Will, John’s hospital declined in reputation until obsolescence.
9. A Modern Businessman
Will Kellogg continually innovated to build his cereal empire. For example, he kept the company running through the great depression by moving factory shifts from 40 hour work weeks to 30. This allowed more people to work during a tough economy. This practice continued until World War II.
Additionally, Will Kellogg invented several food marketing techniques such as putting a toy in cereal boxes, creating mascots, and adding nutrition information to the label. Kellogg showed vision in how he handled his brand, putting his handwritten “signature” on every box.
10. Kellogg’s Cereal— A Mixed Legacy
The Kellogg Brothers have left a mixed legacy regarding both wellness and business. For example, Dr. John Kellogg’s practice of administering yogurt enemas is bizarre but his instincts about good “flora” in the gut were progressive. Hydrotherapy has dubious medical benefits yet, drinking eight glasses of water per day remains a universal health recommendation.
Similarly, Will Kellogg’s cereal brand has shifted in market position over the years. No longer “…part of a balanced breakfast,” Millennials prefer other breakfast foods.
Furthermore, the Kellogg’s personalities and philosophies distract from their contributions. Toward the end of his career, Dr. John Kellogg became involved with social Darwinists, the eugenics movement, and even propagated their racist rhetoric. Will Kellogg suffered many personal tragedies, outlived most of his children, and died a lonely, wealthy man. After Will’s passing, the brand has endured product recalls, advertising blunders, and even links to human rights violations.
If You Liked This….
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- Battle Creek, MI Sanitarium Fire, Feb 1902. (n.d.). Retrieved 2020, from https://www.gendisasters.com/michigan/511/battle-creek,-mi-sanitarium-fire,-feb-1902
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- Wilson, B. C. (2014). Dr. John Harvey Kellogg and the religion of biologic living. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.