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How The 'Battling' Kellogg Brothers Revolutionized American Breakfast


This is FRESH AIR. I'm David Bianculli, editor of the website TV Worth Watching, sitting in for Terry Gross. Some of America's today's most popular breakfast cereals, such as Corn Flakes and Rice Krispies, have a history that intersects with the Seventh-day Adventists, the early wellness movement, eugenics, sexual abstinence and some innovative, as well as some horrifying medical interventions - not something you'd suspect from the popular TV ad jingles.

Today's guest, Dr. Howard Markel, is the author of a book called "The Kelloggs: The Battling Brothers Of Battle Creek." It comes out next week in paperback. It's about Dr. John Kellogg and his younger brother, Will Kellogg. John, the doctor, was groomed to be a leader of the Seventh-day Adventists. In 1876, he became the director of their sanitarium in Battle Creek, Mich., which he turned into a world-famous medical center, spa and grand hotel that attracted many celebrities.

In 1921, his research on diet and digestion was nominated for a Nobel Prize. As part of his dietary research, Dr. Kellogg and his brother created a new idea - ready-to-eat cereals such as Corn Flakes. Will, who was the business innovator, turned those breakfast cereals into good-tasting mass-produced popular breakfasts marketed under the Kellogg brand. He founded the company in 1906.

Although the two brothers worked together for a long time, they never got along. And their relationship ended with a series of lawsuits. Howard Markel directs the Center for the History of Medicine at the University of Michigan, where he's also professor of pediatrics and communicable diseases. Terry Gross spoke with him last year.


TERRY GROSS, BYLINE: Dr. Howard Markel, welcome to FRESH AIR. It's funny, you know, breakfast cereals now are often considered basically sugar-coated vitamin pills because the fortification of vitamins is the nutrition, and the sugar is what gets kids to eat it, but it's not very good for them. But breakfast cereals were originally part of a health craze that Dr. Kellogg created. Why was breakfast such a problem? Like, if you were into health like Dr. John Kellogg was, what were the problems with breakfast as he saw it?

HOWARD MARKEL: Well, there were a number of issues. And yes, Corn Flakes, Wheat Flakes, flake cereal in general were invented to be easily digested by those with upset stomachs or what was then called dyspepsia, the great American stomach ache. And if you look at what people ate in America in the late 19th century or even the early 20th century, it was very heavy in animal fats, often cured meat. So they're very salty, a lot of sugar. You would have for breakfast potatoes that were fried in the congealed fat from the night before. A lot of alcohol and caffeine was consumed, a lot of carbohydrates.

And making breakfast was an ordeal. So even if you made porridge or mush, these whole grains took hours to melt down and make into a mush or a soft form. And so these poor mothers were getting up very early. And they were probably taking care of all their children all night. They had to start a wood-burning fire. And so making breakfast was a great ordeal.

But John Harvey Kellogg invented them for the involuted people who came to his Battle Creek Sanitarium. It was his little brother Will who realized, you know, there are a lot more people who are healthy and just want a convenient tasty breakfast than those who are ill and need an easily digestible breakfast. So he had a little sugar, a little salt to Corn Flakes. And it just took the world by storm in 1906 because you could simply pour breakfast out of a box. Even dad could make breakfast now.

GROSS: (Laughter) So it originally didn't have the title of, like, Corn Flakes or Wheat Flakes. What was the original flaked cereal that the Kelloggs invented called?

MARKEL: Well, their first cereal - basically, Dr. Kellogg thought that if you dextrinize starch - what that meant is if you bake a grain for a long period of time at a high temperature, the starch molecules would break down into a simple sugar, dextrose - and that would be easily digested as soon as you start chewing because the salivary glands help break that down even further. And then, of course, as you go through the gastrointestinal tract, it easily breaks it down. So they first started serving double-baked zwieback biscuits out of whole graham grain, which was whole-wheat grain. And that's where the term graham cracker comes from, named for Sylvester Graham, who touted this in the 1860s.

And one of his patients - supposedly, the story goes - broke her dentures on one of these hard zwieback biscuits. And Dr. Kellogg did not want to have to pay for patients' dentures or dental artifices, so he decided to grind up the zwieback into little crumbs. And that was their first cereal. He called it granola. It was nothing like granola today. And there was another product by a doctor in New York who was making granola. His name was Jackson.

And he sued them, so they changed the name to granose, which sounds very metabolic, that you're breaking down grain. But they weren't happy with that, Dr. Kellogg or his brother. And they felt there's got to be a better way to make cereal than just grinding up toasted bread, basically. And so they worked and they worked and they worked. And Dr. Kellogg tells a story that he had a dream of how to make flake cereal. And that's where the whole thing began. Will tells a different story, that they just decided to roll it out very flat. And one day, both Dr. Kellogg was called...

GROSS: Roll out like a dough?

MARKEL: Like a dough, yes. Roll it flat out like a dough because it was basically a boiled - at first wheat dough and then later a corn dough. But Dr. Kellogg was pulled away for surgery or something and Will just put it aside. He didn't want to throw it out. He was very frugal. He put it in a container. And what that led to is something called tempering the dough. It gets a little moldy - not too moldy that it tastes bad - but the air and the water content evens out across the entire dough. And when they did that and baked it, they came out with these perfect flakes. And so that's where it all began.

GROSS: So these cereals started off as part of a larger health regimen that Dr. Kellog prescribed. You credit him with coming up with the concept of wellness. He ran a sanitarium. So give us an overview of some of the beliefs that he had about wellness that actually became popular.

MARKEL: Well, Dr. Kellogg called - well, we call it wellness - he called it biologic living. And he was really prescient about this. And don't forget, at the turn of the last century, most doctors were fixated on diseases - not preventing them but treating them once they occurred. And back then, it was often once they occurred and were around for a long period of time, so they did their damage.

Dr. Kellogg was all about preventing these diseases before they ever happened by living a healthy life. And that included exercise, a lot of vigorous physical activity, eating a grain-and-vegetable diet, avoiding animal fats or meats - or as he called it, flesh-eating, avoiding that - no alcohol, no caffeine of any kind.

He also was very chaste and reminded his - both his readers and his followers that sex outside the marriage, of course, was not a good idea. But sex for anything other than procreation really sapped the soul and sapped the spirit. And, of course, he was very much opposed to masturbation of any kind, something he wrote about extensively and called the solitary vice.

GROSS: You say he was very chaste. He was totally abstinent. The way you describe it, he and his wife never even consummated their marriage. They had children, but that was through adoption. They slept in separate bedrooms. It sounds like he never had sex.

MARKEL: It sounds that way. Now, when John was in medical school at the Bellevue Hospital Medical College in 1874, he saw and treated a great many playboys and rakes who had syphilis and gonorrhea. And he wrote about it in his student notes. And these were not fun cases. I can tell you as an old sexually-transmitted disease doctor, when you see these cases in full bloom, they are truly disgusting.

I had the benefit in my practice of having antibiotics so they could be treated. But back in the 1870s, they were not only terrible infections, they often were deadly. And, of course, they were contagious. So, often, these men who had other lives - frequented prostitutes or what have you - brought these infections home to their wives. So Kellogg might may have been really freaked out (laughter) by the perils of sex.

GROSS: I see your point.

MARKEL: I'm getting freaked out just telling you about it (laughter).

GROSS: Well, let me reintroduce you here. If you're just joining us, my guest is Dr. Howard Markel. He's the author of the new book "The Kelloggs: The Battling Brothers Of Battle Creek." He's the director of the Center of the History of Medicine at the University of Michigan, where he's also a professor of pediatrics and communicable diseases. We'll be right back after we take a short break. This is FRESH AIR.


GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. And if you're just joining us, my guest is Dr. Howard Markel. He's the author of the new book "The Kelloggs: The Battling Brothers Of Battle Creek." And it's about the Kellogg brothers, one of whom was deep into health. He was a doctor and created a sanitarium where wellness was the thing. And his other brother was basically the marketing genius who popularized the flaked cereals that the brothers co-created like Corn Flakes. And, of course, the other brother, Will Kellogg, created Kellogg's cereals. So another thing that he was in the forefront of was probiotics. He believed that acidophilus...


GROSS: ...Which is one of the most common probiotics now, would help you maintain a healthy digestive system. And you describe his, like, basement laboratory in which he studied fecal specimens under the microscope, comparing the fecal specimens of people who took acidophilus with those who didn't. I mean, who else was doing that back in the turn of the century - in the turn of the 20th century?

MARKEL: There was a man named Henri Tissier at the Pasteur laboratory in Paris. And Dr. Kellogg often traveled to Europe to learn new techniques and new ideas. You know, it's really funny. He started as a passionate believer in Seventh-day Adventism health reform. And he kept a lot of those ideas throughout his career. But as science and medicine progressed, he would read up on these. He would speak to the people who were making these discoveries. And he would shoehorn and shape these discoveries to his own world view.

So he worked with Dr. Tissier at the Pasteur lab to study acidophilus. And he found that people whose guts were populated with acidophilus did far better in not having digestive diseases than those who did not. He also found that soy milk was a much better medium for the propagation of acidophilus and that babies who were fed soy milk acidophilus did far better than those who were treated cow's milk, but not nearly as good as those who were treated breast milk - human breast milk.

GROSS: Regularity was an obsession for Dr. Kellogg. And he had a lot of intestinal problems when he was a child.

MARKEL: He did. He did. As a child, he ate very badly. His favorite meal he lectured about was braised oxtail in a greasy, fatty brown gravy. And even in his 70s or 80s, he would talk about those meals lovingly. And, you know, fried potatoes and flapjacks and bacon and things like that. So he ate a lot of not only fatty foods but constipating foods. He also ate a lot of candy. And he developed constipation. He developed hemorrhoids. He also developed a colitis that scarred his intestine. And so he knew what happened when you ate badly and you were constipated and not regular.

He also, like many doctors at that time, believed in a theory called autointoxication, where putrefying meat just stayed in your gut and gave off poisons that caused all sorts of problems from flatulence and dyspepsia to depression. So he was very aware of that. And he studied gorillas in zoos and realized that those gorillas had anywhere from four to five bowel movements a day and they seemed to be quite happy. And so he prescribed his patients to do the same. And if you ate the diet that he recommended, as well as the frequent enemas and the yogurt and the soy milk and so on, you would indeed have frequent bowel movements.

GROSS: He also believed in some things that seem pretty quacky to us now. Now, what are a couple of examples of those?

MARKEL: Well, let's begin with flake cereal. So they are more easily digested. But we now know that Corn Flakes or any flake cereal has something called a high glycemic index, which means you start digesting it as soon as you're chewing it. You start breaking it down. And so that will bounce your blood sugar all the way up, which then bounces your blood insulin level all the way up. And then both go down precipitously, and you're hungry two hours later, so - you know, long before lunch. So it's far better to eat a low glycemic index type of cereal like oatmeal because that keeps you full or feeling full for much longer.

GROSS: So again, you know, Dr. Kellogg had some really wonderful, advanced thinking when it comes to health. He also had some really, you know, backwards, bad beliefs. And one of those beliefs was in eugenics. Do you want to describe his position on eugenics?

MARKEL: Yeah. That's the bloody stain on his white suit. He always wore white suits, by the way, so that you could see dirt very instantly and you could change. But that stain never really can be cleaned. So, you know, a great many Americans, particularly white Anglo-Saxon Protestant Americans in the turn of the last century, were obsessed with the purity of the so-called white race. And eugenics was this pseudoscience, this pre-genetics where certain traits - personality traits, behavioral traits - would be passed down in a manner similar to blue eyes or brown eyes.

Now, we know that's completely hogwash today, but a great many people believed that - famous people like Teddy Roosevelt and John Harvey Kellogg and famous scientists at various universities and so on because this pseudoscience fed their racist beliefs. It was also an era when a great many immigrants are coming to the United States, and they are extremely foreign to the people who are there, who are already living there - so East European Jews and Southern Italians and people from the Balkans and Greece and so on.

And many white Americans felt that these people would never - could never assimilate into mainstream America and, in fact, would pollute what they called the protoplasm or the germplasm, the American gene pool. And so this was going on at all the best medical schools of the day. And there was research going on. And John Harvey got into this quite early.

Now, he espoused more than eugenics, something that was called euthenics, which is a type of Lamarckism, if you will, that if you live a good, healthy life and you do the various things he prescribed, you could rid yourself of these negative traits - you know, being cheap or being shifty or being a criminal or what have you. And you could pass that on to your children. Now, very few eugenicists believed in this and used to make fun of John Harvey Kellogg behind his back. But they always took his phone calls because John Harvey Kellogg had a great deal of money, primarily from his corn flake dividends.

And he funded a foundation for race betterment. And he founded three huge national conferences on race betterment. Two were in Battle Creek, and one was at the San Francisco World's Fair of 1915, where hundreds of stars in the eugenic firmament - even Booker T. Washington came (laughter) - to lecture and have symposia on eugenics and euthenics. So it was a negative aspect of John Harvey Kellogg's life and ideology that is truly, truly problematic and disturbing.

GROSS: So Battle Creek is famous for Kellogg's and for Post, another big breakfast cereal company. But it's also famous as, at the time, the home center, like, the home base for the Seventh-day Adventists. And Dr. Kellogg - John Kellogg - was very close to co-founders of Seventh-day Adventism, Ellen and James White. And they saw him when he was a child as being a possible leader of the church in the future. So what was his relationship with the church?

MARKEL: Well, you're right. Battle Creek was basically the Vatican of the Seventh-day Adventist Church. And John Harvey, even as a young boy and a young man, just exuded brilliance and was curious about everything. And so the Whites, who were the co-founders of the denomination - Ellen White was a prophetess, a self-proclaimed prophetess. And they realized this young man was quite special, so they groomed him.

And a big part of Seventh-day Adventism and many Christian denominations in the mid-19th century was about health reform, about keeping your body clean and chaste and free of vice and also dietary issues as prescribed in the Old Testament. And he later came to edit their magazine called the Health Reformer, which John Harvey later changed the name to Good Health because he realized that people don't like reform (laughter). They like to be healthy, but they don't want somebody telling them to reform. And so they realized that John Harvey could be the head of their health avenue, their health section of the denomination.

Now, the Whites founded what became the Battle Creek Sanitarium, which was a world-famous medical spa, grand hotel and medical center, but they called it the Western Health Reform Institute. It was basically a house where quacky doctors lectured about things and served bad food and people didn't come back. But they realized that John Harvey could be the new leader, but he had to get a good medical education.

And when he came back to Battle Creek, he was tapped to take over the Western Health Reform Institute. And he said, I'll do so on one condition - that I get to run it and I get to run it not only on religious principles but on scientific principles because he wanted desperately not only to be a good Seventh-day Adventist but to be well-regarded in the medical profession. People from all around the world came to Battle Creek to heal.

GROSS: Some famous people, too. Who were some of the famous people who came?

MARKEL: Well, he treated many presidents, including Warren Harding and William Taft. He treated William Jennings Bryan, the Democratic hopeful. He treated Eddie Cantor, the comedian. He treated Johnny Weissmuller, Tarzan, who would go into the dining room and do a Tarzan yell to begin the meal. He treated Amelia Earhart and Sojourner Truth he treated and on and on and on.

GROSS: So it's really interesting that Corn Flakes and all of the Kellogg's cereals have a direct connection with the Seventh-day Adventists.

MARKEL: Yeah. It's really - because that grain diet was very important to the Adventists. And, of course, Dr. Kellogg found in his study of gastroenterology, which, you know - when you think - if anybody thinks about science at the turn of the last century, you think about germ theory and bacteriology and infectious diseases, sort of the cleaning of the cities and water supply. But how we eat and digest our food was probably the second most important field in medicine. And so he studied this quite a bit.

GROSS: What were some of the beliefs of Seventh-day Adventists?

MARKEL: Well, they're very similar to what I just described about John Harvey's wellness or biological living program. You were to have a chaste and spiritual life. You were to avoid worry. You were to avoid animal fat, flesh, meat at all costs - no drinking of alcohol, no caffeine, no smoking. And the grain and vegetable diet was the way to go. And of course, this personal hygiene and keeping yourself clean externally and internally were some of their pronouncements.

GROSS: And I think they also believe in this constant and ongoing battle between Satan and God and that...


GROSS: ...You really had to be careful to stay on the right side.

MARKEL: Yes. And so I'm skipping over the most important - Adventism - so they believed in the imminent end of the world and the second coming of Jesus Christ. And that was taught very strictly. And young children were not often educated because - you know, in school and such - because the belief was, why put all that time and effort into educating children if the world's going to end anyway? And so there was a lot of fear and the concepts of the devil and terrible monsters that would take over the world at the second coming and how only a very few, the most pious, would be elevated to heaven.

GROSS: But it seems like Dr. Kellogg's work in trying to keep people more healthy and discover new things went against the idea that any day now the whole world can end and is likely to end. So what's the point?

MARKEL: That's a very good point 'cause he was all about life. There was a rupture between John Harvey Kellogg and the Whites that began probably...

GROSS: The Whites being the co-founders of the church.

MARKEL: Yes, Ellen and James White, the co-founders of the church. And the rupture probably began as soon as John took over the sanitarium. He was a very headstrong guy. He always knew he was right, even when he wasn't. Because he was so charismatic and brilliant, he often was right. But he did not want people who are were medically trained telling him how to run his hospital or his medical center. And he certainly didn't want people who were trying to run it from afar.

You know, the Whites were often wintering in California. And, of course, there were other elders of the Adventist Church who looked at the profits that the sanitarium was making. Now, it all went back into the sanitarium, but they wanted some of that money for other Adventist projects and programs.

And so John was very tight-fisted with the money he brought in and the ideas he was propagating. And eventually, there was a deep rupture and a whispering campaign that John was taken over by the devil that became a shouting campaign. And in 1905, he was excommunicated from the Seventh-day Adventist Church, the very church he grew up in and was raised to become a leader in.

GROSS: OK. So let's get back to cereal. Will was the marketing genius behind Kellogg's cereals. He was also in on the early recipes of them. And he had worked with his brother at the sanitarium as the business guy there figuring out, you know, I guess all the accounting stuff and, you know, making the business end work. And he was very innovative on that front, but he was considered the dim brother when they were kids. He was eight years younger than Dr. Kellogg.

MARKEL: Yes. And John, as the older brother, never missed an opportunity to pick on or humiliate his younger brother from childhood on. In his old age, Will said, what I remember most about my childhood is that I shared a bed with John. And he would warm his cold feet on my back during the winter. And he would push him and make fun of him.

And, of course, when Will worked for him for almost 25 years as his administrative aide, John did all sorts of mean things. He had him run beside him as John rode his bike across the campus, and Will had to take notes or dictation. When John went to the bathroom to have a bowel movement, he made Will come in and take notes so he wouldn't waste a moment long before LBJ was doing that to his White House aides.

And he didn't pay him well, and he didn't treat him well. Yet, Will was this business genius who knew how to run a very large organization. You couldn't find a better tutorial for running an international corporation like the Kellogg's cereal company than by running the Battle Creek Sanitarium for so many years. It's just that the psychic costs of being made fun of and treated as a lackey was very difficult for Will's psyche.

GROSS: These two brothers, John and Will, fought to the end. And one of the things they fought about was the brand name of Kellogg.

MARKEL: Yeah. So as soon as poor Will became successful and John Harvey sold him the rights and made a mint off of Corn Flakes stock, he started making his own cereal and calling it Kellogg's. And, of course, Will, by this time, had advertised to a fare-thee-well. This was beginning around 1909. And he was investing, you know, millions of dollars a year in ads. And he felt that another Kellogg-named product that was not nearly as tasty as his product would harm his company. And to some extent - to a large extent, he was right. So he sued John Harvey, and then John Harvey sued Will.

And this lawsuit - it went for almost a decade, going all the way to the Michigan State Supreme Court. And the basic question was, who had the right to use the name Kellogg on a box of cereal? Now, going for John Harvey's case, you know, he was more famous. He was a world-famous doctor. He wrote books. He was a best-selling author. People came to see him for his digestive advice. He thought he was the guy. And Will said, well, no, wait a minute. Everybody who hears the name Kellogg's thinks of Corn Flakes now. And by that time, this is, you know, early 1920 - they did. And the judges agreed with Will, and he won the case. And poor John Harvey had to pay all the legal costs and everything else. And he could only put his name in tiny writing on the bottom of the box for any cereal he created.

And, of course, it was very easy to steal a patent for cereals, the Kellogg's learned. All you have to do is change one little step, and then you can't really be sued by the person who holds the patent. So Will later made a mint off of bran cereals even though that was truly John Harvey's creation. But the two - you know, there was a lot of bad blood between them. And then after the lawsuit, they rarely, if ever, spoke to one another again. Will made sure there was always a witness when they did speak to each other because he never knew what John Harvey would say about him.

GROSS: So I have to tell you, when I was growing up, Battle Creek was this kind of mythic place for me because, you know, I'd have breakfast cereals for breakfast. And whether it was Post or Kellogg's, the address would be Battle Creek. And I would, like, stare at the cereal boxes when I had breakfast. And there wasn't much to read on them, so you're always seeing the name Battle Creek.

MARKEL: (Laughter).

GROSS: And there was always, like, a come on on the boxes were, like, if you wrote to the address in Battle Creek, you'd get a free something or another, you know...

MARKEL: Right.

GROSS: ...A souvenir of the cereal. And so it would all lead back to Battle Creek. And I had no idea what that was or what it meant, though it sounded like a really interesting name - Battle Creek.


GROSS: Like, who knew what kind of battles went on there (laughter) that helped produce these cereals?


GROSS: Since you live close to Battle Creek and actually took school trips there, was it a mythical place in your mind? You saw the reality of it.

MARKEL: Well, in 1966, it was because Cereal City was in full operation. So...

GROSS: Cereal City - is that what it was called?

MARKEL: Yeah, that's what they called it, Cereal City. And, you know, if you were a Michigan boy, as I was, you took two big field trips. One was to the Ford Motor Company in Dearborn, Mich., which also had a mythical sensibility to many children. But you took a trip to Battle Creek.

So you went into this factory which was pristine, and everyone was wearing white. And there was stainless steel devices all chugging and moving and doing stuff. And there were these conveyor belts. Literally, there were 5 miles of conveyor belts in the factory that went all the way from the granary where they took raw corn or wheat or what have you. And you followed this path with a tour guide all the way to the boxing room where you had fresh boxes of Corn Flakes or Sugar Frosted Flakes or what have you.

And the smell was overpowering. I still remember that smell of toasted corn. And then they gave you a fresh box, and that fresh box was the best box of cereal I've ever had. And to some extent, I'm still searching for that wonderful fresh box of cereal.


GROSS: Well, Howard Markel, thank you so much for talking with us.

MARKEL: Well, thanks so much, Terry. It's just been thrilling to have the opportunity to speak with you today.

BIANCULLI: Dr. Howard Markel speaking to Terry Gross last year. His book, "The Kelloggs: The Battling Brothers Of Battle Creek," comes out in paperback next week. Coming up, I'll review "Sharp Objects," the new HBO miniseries premiering Sunday, starring Amy Adams as a newspaper reporter who returns to her hometown to investigate the case of missing teen girls. This is FRESH AIR.


NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

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