Dr. Howard Markel’s new book about the Kellogg brothers

History

Breakfast, Business, and Battling Brothers

Professor and medical historian Howard Markel’s new book explores the story of the Kellogg brothers and the “indelible mark they left on the world”

Fall 2017
Share Email Print
Text: A

When Howard Markel was a 6-year-old boy growing up in suburban Detroit, his first-grade class took a field trip to the Kellogg’s factory in Battle Creek, about a two-hour drive across the state. “I still have the Tony the Tiger cereal bowl we were each given as souvenirs,” recalls Markel (M.D. 1986), Ph.D., the George E. Wantz Distinguished University Professor of the History of Medicine. The small box of Sugar Frosted Flakes that he received on that day in 1966, however, “was consumed before our school bus turned onto the interstate highway to take us home.” 

Battle Creek Sanitarium bathing area for women.
Battle Creek Sanitarium bathing area for women. 

Like most anyone else who grew up in Michigan at that time, Markel says, he could not help but be aware of the Kellogg’s Cereal Company or the beneficence of the Will Keith Kellogg Foundation (which would, in 1981, establish the W.K. Kellogg Eye Center at Michigan Medicine). 

A doctor examines a patient at the Battle Creek Sanitarium.
A doctor examines a patient at the Battle Creek Sanitarium.

Years later, as a medical student at the University of Michigan, Markel skimmed many of John Harvey Kellogg’s “entertaining health tomes as respite from cramming still another medical textbook into my memory bank,” he says. “I recall thinking at the time that someone ought to tell the tale of these two extraordinary brothers, never imagining I might be that person.” 

After he completed his last book, An Anatomy of Addiction: Sigmund Freud, William Halsted and the Miracle Drug, Cocaine (Pantheon Books/Alfred A. Knopf, 2011), Markel began thinking about topics for his next project. “I realized that it was right near my home of Ann Arbor all the time: the incredible life and times of Dr. John Harvey Kellogg (M.D. 1875), whose archival papers are housed in the University of Michigan’s Bentley Historical Library, his equally remarkable brother Will Keith Kellogg, and the indelible mark they left on the world. And it all happened in Battle Creek.” 

The Kelloggs: The Battling Brothers of Battle Creek is available now. Read an excerpt below. 

The Sanitarium dining room annex, c. 1904.
The Sanitarium dining room annex, c. 1904.

This morning, more than 350 million people devoured a bowl of Kellogg’s Corn Flakes. Hundreds of millions more started their day with a cornucopia of crunchy, and frequently sugar-laden, flaked, popped, puffed cereals. While perusing the cereal box, peering over the bowl, and gripping a spoonful of the stuff, few of these sleepy diners know that two men created those famously crispy, golden flakes of corn. John Harvey and Will Keith Kellogg were brothers from the Michigan hamlet of Battle Creek. Together, they introduced and mass-marketed the concept of “wellness.” And in so doing, they changed how the world eats breakfast. 

Nurses at the Battle Creek Sanitarium.
Nurses at the Battle Creek Sanitarium. 

John and Will began their ascent into the pantheon of American history by building the Battle Creek Sanitarium, a once world-famous medical center, spa, and grand hotel. For more than half a century, “the San” attracted droves of people actively pursuing health and well-being. The brothers also developed a successful medical publishing house, an exercise machine and electrical “sunbath” firm, cooking, medical, and nursing schools, an undergraduate college, and sundry other profitable health product companies. Yet throughout these endeavors and for most of their lives, the “Kellogg boys” hated each other’s guts. 

From the late 19th century to World War II, John — the eldest by eight years — was one of America’s most beloved physicians. His books were worldwide bestsellers. The advice he dispensed in these volumes, lectures, and his magazine, Good Health (“the oldest health magazine in the world — established 1866”), was followed by millions of people, including some of the most prominent celebrities of the day. In 1921, his “lifesaving” research on digestion and diet was nominated for the Nobel Prize for Physiology or Medicine. Eleven years later, a 1932 poll ranked him second on a list of 25 important American luminaries and lauded him as “the noblest man” in the United States; only Herbert Hoover ranked higher (a status that would drastically change for the beleaguered president). 

Will Kellogg and his wife, Ella, c. 1880.
Will Kellogg and his wife, Ella, c. 1880.
The Sanitarium kitchen.
The Sanitarium kitchen.

During this same period, Will became one of the world’s most successful industrialists. In 1906, he founded the Battle Creek Toasted Corn Flake Company, the original name of the Kellogg Company, which today enjoys more than $14 billion a year in net sales of breakfast cereals, snacks, and other manufactured foods in 180 nations around the globe. With cunning and élan, Will Kellogg revolutionized the mass production of food, invested a fortune to advertise his wares to the public, and, as a result, made an even bigger fortune. When he was done amassing his wealth, he created the charitable means to give it away to those most in need of help and support. 

Behind all these triumphs the Kelloggs’ filial relations were a mess. For decades John and Will fought, litigated, and plotted against one another with a passion more akin to grand opera than the kinship of brothers. Born the sons of two early votaries of the Seventh-day Adventist Church, a denomination predicting the imminent end of the world and the Second Coming of Jesus Christ, they were unable to contain the destruction wrought by their long-running quarrel. In their dotage, each brother came to regret their feud’s acidic effects, even if they were never able to reach a peaceful resolution. In light of their incredible success, how could things have gone so horribly wrong between them? 

The greenhouse at the Battle Creek Sanitarium.

 

The Kelloggs: The Battling Brothers of Battle Creek by Howard Markel (Pantheon/PenguinRandomHouse Books, 2017). © Howard Markel, 2017. Reprinted with permission. All rights reserved. 

Photos courtesy of the U-M Center for the History of Medicine, Howard Markel, the Bentley Historical Library, and from the public domain.