The Interesting Story of John Kellogg

When looking back on history, it is important to remember that people may have good intentions but mixed with the wrong things — it can lead to bad outcomes. It is only through hindsight that we can learn. In saying this though, there is also a need to acknowledge the harmful views a person may have held.

John Harvey Kellogg was born on 26 February 1852 in Tyrone Michigan, he also had a younger brother, William who was born on 7 April 1860. Their parents, John Preston Kellogg and Anne Stanley were farmers. 

The Underpinning Beliefs

They were deeply faithful and became members of the Millerites who thought that the second coming would happen on 22 October 1844. When that didn’t happen, it became known as The Great Disappointment, the group split the group, and the Kellogg’s would follow a woman by the name of Ellen Harmon. She herself was said to have been given a message to travel the straight path right into heaven. They were following a set of unorganised beliefs until 1863 when they became the more organised Seventh-day Adventist Church.

To understand what came later in his life, it is important to understand what his beliefs were grounded in. A tradition of the Seventh-day Adventist Church was the understanding that the people had a moral obligation to live a healthy life. You had to take care of the physical form to guarantee you were serving God completely. While today that could be seen as not partaking in alcohol or tobacco, back in Kellogg’s day it was more critical of traditional medicine. 

The church wanted to train their own doctors. These doctors would have roots in Adventism but have practical experience in medicine. The church believed this would allow them to be critical while at the same time having a well-informed position. John Kellogg would be one of the people chosen to study at the Hygieo-Therapeutic College in New Jersey. Their motto was: A healthy mind in a healthy body

John Kellogg continued his studies at the University of Michigan Medical School. Though it should be noted that he didn’t want to be a doctor in the traditional sense. He wanted to prevent rather than treat medicine. 

Battle Creek Sanitarium

John was appointed superintendent of a facility that went by the name of the Western Health Reform Institute in 1876. It quickly underwent a name change to become the Battle Creek Sanitarium

Over the following decades, John along with his brother Will oversee the development of the facility to become a globally recognised destination. It was seen as a part resort, part medical facility and part retreat for the rich and powerful. From my research, Dr John Kellogg sounds like a quack-doctor peddling pseudo-science while trying to build an early version of the Scientology Celebrity Centre.

L to R: William Kellogg, John Kellogg, Corn Flakes and the Battle Creek Sanitarium

The facility itself boasted a 15-story tower with 1200 bedrooms, hundreds of baths, a lobby the size of a football field, indoor gardens and the flooring across the whole facility added up to five acres of land. It had its own power plant and a staff that included doctors, nurses, orderlies and masseuses.

It was custom for Dr John Kellogg, who oversaw the entire operation, to meet each and every patient who was delivered to his care.

This all sounds great but it is here where things start to get weird.

The sanatorium was outfitted with the latest equipment which Kellogg assured would get his patients fighting fit — however, some of the treatments people were prescribed weren’t happily taken by the patients. For example one of the rooms of the facility was named the Sanctum Sanctorum. This room was filled with enema machines. Each machine was capable of pumping around 15 quarts (14 litres) of water into the rectum in just a single minute. If this didn’t help bowel movements to total Kellogg’s recommended 4 a day, the patient would be given 1 pint (568.26 millilitres) of yoghurt a day. The final solution if that had failed was to give the patient a yoghurt enema.

Other therapies included:

  • Electric light bath
  • Sinusoidal current treatment
  • Continuous bath

The most harmful therapy would be for masturbation, which he believed would ultimately lead to things like heart disease and insanity. Boys would be bound, tied, or forced to wear cages, and if that didn’t work, they were circumcised without aesthetics, because the pain would hopefully discourage further acts. Girls were not exempt, some were burned with acid or subjected to surgery to remove part of the genitals.

On the one positive note that I can find amongst the horror is Kellogg’s Electric Light Bath. The therapy was that patients were put into a cabinet lit with light bulbs, and it was thought to cure a number of ailments, such as writer’s cramp or syphilis. It was his work with this therapy that laid the groundwork for using light therapy to treat depression. Enjoy that little bit of positivity because from here it gets rough. 

Corn Flakes

While all this was happening — Kellogg also wanted to reform breakfast. Up until now, breakfast was just the night before leftovers. Part of his religion meant that Kellogg was a proponent of eating food in its natural state. This comprised of a diet of fruits, vegetables, nuts and grains. So enlisting his brother, Will and John experimented for years in their food lab trying to come up with an easy boring digestible food. John wanted the food to be bland because he believed that the food would keep patients from getting too excited and overstimulated. How corn flakes were conceived is a bit of legend and history. Apparently, the brothers accidentally left wheat-berry dough on the counter overnight. It was stale the next morning, and when they rolled it out and toasted it, they got some crunchy flakes that became a hit with patients. John handed the marketing off to Will to manage, as he was in charge of the bookkeeping.

Will wanted to take the business to the next level. To do this he wanted to add sugar to the corn flakes — John disagreed. So Will left to found the Battle Creek Toasted Corn Flake Company leaving John to try and sell the corn flakes they had created. However, Will sued and won against his brother and went down the business route leaving John to manage the sanatorium alone.

All seemed to be going well until in 1902. The church had become increasingly concerned with the curriculum which was getting further away from Adventist teachings. Also, debts had been mounting up which they could not pay back. On February 18, 1902, a fire left the whole place damaged and the church told John they wouldn’t rebuild.

After the Sanatorium

In 1907 Kellogg had a falling out with the church leaders which lead to his expulsion from the church. They believed Kellogg was misappropriating funds for medical research and education instead of evangelism.

John continued his work by serving on the Michigan State Board of Health, writing 50 books on the subject of health and issuing some of the first warnings on the dangers of smoking. He had successfully lobbied to pass a law that would call for the ‘sterilisation of mentally defective persons’. This law led to the involuntary sterilisation of 3,800 people in the state. The law would not be repealed until 1974.

This is where things go from weird to horrible and casts everything he did at the sanatorium in a whole new different light.


In 1906 John, along with Irving Fisher and Charles Davenport founded the Race Betterment Foundation. The organisations’ purpose was to maintain the superiority of certain races by selective breeding. It should be noted here that he and his wife had fostered quite a lot of children. However, it wasn’t out of kindness, instead, John had wanted to make some sort of discovery on the influence of the environment on heredity. Some of those children he had fostered were deemed ‘undesirable’ in one way or another.

This had not been the first time John had tried to do this. The Battle Creek Sanitarium had been the epicentre for the spread of eugenics throughout America. John would end up devoting around 30 years of his life (and a ton of his own money) to the idea that excluding people with certain genes from the pool of breeding humans would improve humanity as a whole.

Two conferences were held and it was at the first one that John raised the idea of a eugenics registry. One was successfully made in partnership between the Race Betterment Foundation and the Eugenics Record Office. The registry collected information on thousands of families until it ceased operation in 1935.


John Kellogg died on 14 December 1943 in Battle Creek, Michigan at the age of 91. He was a deeply flawed individual. It is clear that he blurred the line between professional and personal biases. His treatments hurt people, caused trauma to patients that would last a lifetime and was a racist and ableist. While he may have thought of the idea of corn flakes, it is his brother William that is responsible for the way they taste today.

History sometimes chooses to forget the bad parts of a person and focus on what good they did. John was a part of creating corn flakes; a cereal that is around today. But that should be no excuse to turn a blind eye to the many thousands of lives he impacted back then, and held beliefs that are still with us today.

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