Book Review

The warring cereal kings of Battle Creek

Dr. John Harvey Kellogg in 1942.
Associated Press
Dr. John Harvey Kellogg in 1942.

Long before Goop, green juice, our own contemporary obsession with wellness, there was Dr. John Harvey Kellogg.

In the late 19th century, John, along with his brother Will, created an empire devoted to better living through better health. At his famed Battle Creek Sanitarium, Kellogg pushed a regimen free of alcohol and tobacco (and sex). Key to it all, though, was the gastrointestinal tract and frequent bowel movements. John thought fiber could cure just about anything and formulated a ready-made breakfast cereal that changed the way we eat. In addition he“advocated regular, rigorous exercise, massage therapy, fresh air, spirituality, laughter, a worry free demeanor, the reduction or elimination of stress, [and] plenty of sleep,” medical historian Howard Markel writes in this comprehensive, if sometimes plodding, dual biography. Take that, Arianna Huffington.

“The Kelloggs: The Battling Brothers of Battle Creek” is the first and last word on the siblings who made a fortune in health and food manufacturing. And battle they did. Will, eight years younger than his brother, labored under his elder sibling’s shadow. The doctor belittled him at every turn, even as the junior Kellogg managed the day-to-day business of “the San” to perfection. The two would ultimately fall out and joust in court over the rights to the famed cereal that bears their name.


Markel has dived deep into archives and brings an impressive knowledge of American cultural and food history to his account. The brothers may have hated one another, but Markel is persuasive in his case that neither would have succeeded alone. “Each brother spurred the other on to greater heights and many of their achievements were symbiotic, even if they were not always able to acknowledge that fact,” he observes.

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The brothers were born into a Seventh-day Adventist family — their father was a prosperous broom manufacturer and farmer in Michigan — and their ventures were grounded in Christian notions about diet and hygiene. The Adventists supported John’s medical education, which gave him a footing in modern science. A bit of nepotism gave him his start: In 1876, when his father financially backed the precursor to the San, he asked in return that his son be given a job as staff physician. The doctor set about his task and quickly renamed the facility. He secured funding for a lavish new site, which one church leader grumbled was just a “grand hotel.”

It turned out to be a smashing success. By 1890, the San employed some 1,000 people and annually served nearly 10,000 patients, who feasted on vegetable and fiber-rich foodstuffs grown on the San’s 400-acre farm. But none of this would have been possible without the business acumen of Will. He was an ombudsman crossed with an accountant. He managed the books, dealt with repairs and upkeep, and myriad other tasks. He handled patient complaints with supreme tact. Yet the doctor treated him as his valet — every morning, Will would trim John’s white beard and polish his shoes. The younger Kellogg complained he was merely “J.H.’s flunkey.”

The nettlesome dynamic would spill over into the development of the famous flaked cereal. John liked to say the idea came to him in a dream. But, as Markel explains, it was a complex, collaborative process of trial and error, rolling out wheat dough, tempering and baking it. Will, the doctor’s wife, Ella, and even rival cereal maker Henry Perky, inventor of Shredded Wheat, all played a part. On April 14, 1896, the US patent office granted John a patent for “Flaked Cereal and Process of Preparing the Same.”

Will wanted to commercialize their innovation, but his brother refused. It was one of many disagreements they would have over their venture. And it was Will who made another key advance, switching from wheat to corn, insisting “that his corn flakes had to taste good.” (The real secret? Malt, sugar, and salt.) Will bought out his brother in 1906, but that did not ease the tensions. The doctor also sold flaked cereal under the Kellogg name, setting off a nine-year legal battle starting in 1909 over brand infringement.


The younger brother would prevail, and his company became a billion-dollar enterprise that rose on sales of sugary cereals — hardly the bland but healthful vision of the good doctor. John, always attracted to visions of purity, would take a dark turn to eugenics. In the end it is Will who emerges as the more sympathetic figure — and better businessman. Even in terms of their philanthropic efforts, it would be Will, not John, “who achieved a certain kind of immortality.’’

The victory, however, turned out to be somewhat Pyrrhic. The warring imposed “psychic costs’’ on both that “diminished their peace of mind, and spilled over onto their relations with friends, colleagues, and family.’’ In the end, Markel argues, the two made a “lasting impact on the world,’’ even if they failed to make themselves happy.


The Battling Brothers of Battle Creek

By Howard Markel

Pantheon, 506 pp., illustrated, $35

Matthew Price is a regular contributor to the Globe.