The Extraordinary Life and Times of the Corn Flake King: John Harvey Kellogg

Last updated on March 8th, 2023 at 05:33 am

For well over a century now, Kellogg’s Toasted Cornflakes, featuring Cornelius “Corny” Rooster on the box, has been a mainstay of households across America. 

Prototype for the hundreds of other dry breakfast cereals to follow, Toasted Cornflakes effectively put dry cereals on the breakfast menu—and Battle Creek, Michigan, on the map. 

But few know the story of John Harvey Kellogg, the man behind the famous corn flake (and many other innovations), or the larger significance of Battle Creek, Michigan, home of the world-famous Battle Creek Sanitarium. 

John Harvey Kellogg

A Man of Religious Conviction

Born on February 26, 1852, in Tyrone, Michigan, John Harvey Kellogg was one of 17 children sired by his father, John Preston Kellogg, to two wives. 

A founding member of the Seventh-day Adventist Church, John Preston moved his family to Battle Creek in 1956 specifically to be near other members of their newly-established religious denomination. There his father established a broom-making company.

In accordance with their faith, the Kelloggs believed that the second coming of Jesus was imminent, so formal education of the children was redundant. 

Apart from a short stint at public school from age 9–11, John Harvey spent most of his early years working in his father’s factory, sorting brooms. 

In his free time, John Harvey became an avid reader and, by age 12, he was offered an errand boy job in a publishing house owned by Seventh-day Adventist founders James and Ellen White. 

In just a few years, he advanced from errand boy to printing apprentice, proofer to editor. 

As a printing apprentice, one of John Harvey’s jobs was to set type for two Adventist periodicals written and distributed by Ellen White: The Health Reformer and Health, or How to Live

In the process, he became familiar with Mrs. White’s perspectives on good health habits (which included vegetarianism); habits he himself wholeheartedly embraced and followed throughout life. 

From Aspiring Teacher to Doctor

At age 16, John Harvey decided to turn his love of reading to teaching, securing a minor teaching position in Hastings, Michigan. 

At age 20, he enrolled in a teacher’s training course at Michigan State Normal School but was persuaded by the Whites to attend a six-month medical course instead (along with his brothers and members of the Whites) at Russell Trall’s Hygieo-Therapeutic College in New Jersey. Their objective was to open an Adventist-managed health spa in Battle Creek.

After completing the six-month medical course, John Harvey attended medical school at the University of Michigan. After, Bellevue Hospital Medical College in New York City awarded his MD in 1875. 

In October of 1876, the Whites appointed Dr. Kellogg superintendent of their new health spa, “Western Health Reform Institute.” The following year he renamed the facility the “Battle Creek Medical Surgical Sanitarium” (coining the term “sanitarium,” a term suggesting both hospital care and the importance of sanitation in personal health). 

The “San”

The “Battle Creek Medical Surgical Sanitarium” (or “San,” as it became known) flourished under Dr. Kellogg’s direction, becoming one of the premier wellness destinations in the US, particularly among the rich, affluent, and trend-setting. 

Included in his list of devout followers were former US President William Howard Taft, composer and pianist Percy Grainger, aviator Amelia Earhart, Nobel Prize-winning playwright George Bernard Shaw, “Tarzan” actor and Olympiad Johnny Weissmuller, Ford Motor Company founder Henry Ford, inventor Thomas Edison, actress Sarah Bernhardt, retailer J.C. Penny, and future breakfast cereal competitor, CWCW Post. 

Following a catastrophic fire in 1902, the San was not only rebuilt (far beyond the White’s vision) it was enlarged to a complex of 30 health and wellness buildings situated on 30 acres, able to accommodate nearly 1300 guests. (Much of the renovation costs were assumed by Dr. Kellogg himself through book sales.) 

The new complex housed a complete hospital (with research facilities and nursing school), experimental kitchens and workshops, as well as the Sanitarium Food Company—which distributed several foods invented by Dr. Kellogg, including his most enduring: the toasted corn breakfast flake.

Kellogg’s Unorthodox Approach to Treatment 

Although Dr. Kellogg’s medical training involved the latest theories and scientific perspectives, his personal approach to patient treatment remained rooted in his Seventh-day Adventist teachings. For example, he stressed clean water, fresh air, sunlight, and exercise, abstinence from tobacco, alcohol, and excessive sexual activity, as well as a well-balanced vegetarian diet that includes grains, nuts, fruits, and vegetables–and avoids meat. In short, what Kellogg termed “biologic living.” 

To maximize the effectiveness of the various treatments the “San” provided, Dr. Kellogg experimented with every known innovation and modality, instituting some of the most controversial therapies of the time, including “bathing” his patients in artificial light, administering electricity directly to patients’ skin, the so-called “continuous bath” (a standard bath that could last hours, days, weeks, or even months), and administering multiple enemas on a daily basis. 

Additionally, Kellogg firmly believed that masturbation was at the root of numerous health problems including poor digestion, heart disease, memory loss, impaired vision, epilepsy, and even insanity–and sought to curb it. 

To help his male patients resist the urge to masturbate, Kellogg had their hands tied, their penises bandaged, and in more persistent cases, metal cages places over their organs to prevent erections. 

For female patients suffering from this dangerous habit, he advocated chemical desensitizing of the clitoris–or having it surgically removed altogether.

Kellogg the Inventor: Mechanical Devices

Dr. Kellogg was perhaps the most proactive healthcare provider of his time, taking it upon himself to construct innovative devices to solve the many health issues his patients faced. 

Though some seem outlandish by today’s standards, others were decades ahead of the curve and currently quite in vogue.  

The electric horse: Upon discovering that few horse riders suffered constipation, Kellogg invented an electric, barrel-shaped stationary device equipped with a saddle to simulate horseback riding. (Essentially, it was the prototype for modern-day mechanical bulls.)

The vibrating “poop” chair: Insisting that an immaculately clean intestine was crucial for overall health (he is said to have self-administered multiple enemas daily), Kellogg designed an electric vibrating chair that when activated, violently shook the patient to “shake out” a bowel movement. 

The belly puncher: Designed to counteract excess belly fat, Kellogg created what he termed a “Percussion Machine,” a device consisting of two virtual “arms” wrapped in leather that pummeled the patient’s stomach like boxing gloves to dislodge fatty tissue. 

The ultimate enema machine: To take his extreme enema therapy to the nth degree, Kellogg created a machine that pumped in and sucked out an astounding 25 gallons of liquid (water, mineral oil, or yogurt) per minute via the anus. 

Kellogg the Innovator: Foodstuffs

In addition to the many mechanical devices Kellogg designed, he created many foodstuffs intended to improve nutritional intake and aid digestion. 

Along with his brother, William Keith Kellogg, Dr. Kellogg founded the Battle Creek Sanitarium Health Food Company in 1898 to handle the production of the various foodstuffs he created, initially for sanitarium patients but later marketed around the country.

Plant-based meat substitute: Nearly a century before vegetarians sought a readily-available substitute for real meat, Kellogg produced and marketed “Protose,” a plant-based concoction consisting of wheat gluten, cereal, and peanut butter. Kellogg promoted this product as a foodstuff buyers “could eat . . . as they would a steak or sliced over bread.”

Spreadable peanuts: Although Kellogg was not the first to grind peanuts into a paste (Marcellus Gilmore Edison patented a roasted peanut spread in 1884), he concocted a method for reducing raw peanuts to a spread for Sanitarium patients in need of protein but with difficulties chewing; a product he then marketed nationally.

Dry breakfast cereals: In the late 19th Century, turning corn into flakes was hardly a new concept, but had never been presented as a breakfast food. 

Around 1877, Kellogg (and his brother) began experimenting with wheat, oats, and corn intending to produce a healthy breakfast food that was easy to chew and digest. 

Formulating a viable dough that combined all three grains, Kellogg created a product he marketed as Granula—which had only marginal success. But then, in 1894, he stumbled upon the process that produces toasted cornflakes. Once his dry breakfast cereal caught on, Kellogg then invented special machines to mass produce it.

A Man of Extraordinary Vision

Dr. John Harvey Kellogg ran the Battle Creek Medical Surgical Sanitarium until his death in 1943; shortly after opening a second facility in Florida. In his time (as in modern times), he was both admonished and revered for his revolutionary (and unconventional) approach to healthcare. 

For the thousands of wealthy, ailing Americans who first learned the relationship between health, fitness, and hygiene through Kellogg, he was nothing short of a “wellness guru.” Perhaps the first in the nation. 

Though the efficacy of some of Dr. Kellogg’s methods and mechanisms remains in question, his experimentation with electrotherapy, hydrotherapy, and phototherapy laid important groundwork for a number of therapeutic modalities used today. 

More importantly, his emphasis on hygiene, diet, exercise, and proper breathing was nothing short of revolutionary. Furthermore, his views on alcohol, tobacco, and meat consumption are only now being truly appreciated in the US and around the world.

In his lifetime, Dr. Kellogg patented four medical devices (among them an artificial sunbathing machine and a peanut-based meat alternative called Nuttose), published over 50 books (and contributed hundreds of health-related articles to peer-reviewed medical journals), and frequently lectured at prestigious universities, where his innovative ideas received applause. 

But despite his enlightened, progressive way of thinking, many of his views would today be judged ill-informed and backward.

A Man of Contradictions 

In spite of possessing one of the most forward-thinking minds of his time, Dr. John Kellogg shared many points of view that are today considered narrow-minded: White supremacy, racism, and chauvinism. 

Kellogg was one of the many scholars and theologians of the time who supported the so-called Race Theory of Polygenesis, the belief that God created each race as a separate species and intended them to remain separate. 

In effect, they believed God placed each race upon the Earth where they could best thrive: blacks in the tropics, whites in temperate zones—and never the twain should meet. And in that science and religion were interlinked a century ago, Bible literalists like Kellogg shared this prevailing perspective.

Accordingly, Kellogg supported long-standing anti-miscegenation laws in the US that made it a crime for individuals to wed outside their race. Part of a broader policy of racial segregation, these laws served to minimize contact between people of different ethnicities (particularly, Whites and Blacks). 

Although Kellogg raised several Black foster children himself, he joined with economist Irving Fisher and biologist Charles Davenport to found the Race Betterment Foundation, which subsequently became a major center of the eugenics movement in America; the archaic concept that human gene pools could and should be purified by excluding people and groups judged inferior (or by promoting those judged superior). Essentially: selective breeding. 

As a man of both science and Biblical teachings, Dr. Kellogg also shared commonly held perceptions of the time regarding women: women are by design inferior, are required to recognize their husband’s authority, and their personal needs (apart from those associated with child birthing and rearing) are irrelevant.  

Said to have disdained sexual contact except for procreative purposes (claiming to have never consummated his own marriage), Kellogg not only launched a vehement anti-masturbation crusade, he seemed to regard female sexuality as an affliction (mania or hysteria) rather than normal reproductive behavior. 

Kellogg associated sexual urges in adult women with masturbation addiction in youth; advocating the application of carbolic acid to a girl’s clitoris to desensitize it, or performing a clitorectomy in more virulent cases. 

As regards adult women with excessive sexual urges (nymphomania) Kellogg recommended “Cool sitz baths; the cool enema; a spare diet; the application of blisters and other irritants to the sensitive parts of the sexual organs, or the complete removal of the clitoris and nymphae [inner labia of the vulva.]”  

A Dubious Legacy

John Harvey Kellogg was, without qualification a modern-day Renaissance Man. Well read. A proper gentleman. Cultured. Charismatic. And innovator and inventor. Most of all, a free-thinker unintimidated by convention. 

But to summon a clear picture of this extraordinary man–his accomplishments and shortcomings–his life must be viewed within the context of the times in which he lived.

Kellogg died on December 14, 1943, in Battle Creek, Michigan at the ripe old age of 91; a testament to practicing what he preached. 

References, “Dr. John Kellogg,” Dr. John Kellogg Invented Cereal. Some of His Other Wellness Ideas Were Much Weirder – HISTORY 

Atlas Obscura, “The Former Battle Creek Sanitarium,” The Former Battle Creek Sanitarium – Battle Creek, Michigan – Atlas Obscura 

John Harvey, MDMD, Pioneering Health Reformer, John Harvey Kellogg, MDMD: Pioneering Health Reformer – Richard W. Schwarz – Google Books 

Mental Floss, “11 of John Harvey Kellogg’s Strangest Inventions,” 11 of John Harvey Kellogg’s Strangest Inventions ( 

 “The Wild Story of John Harvey Kellogg, the Eccentric Wellness Guru Who Invented Corn Flakes,” John Harvey Kellogg, The Eccentric Eugenicist Who Invented Corn Flakes ( 

Britannica, “John Harvey Kellogg,”

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