Howard Markel
Howard MarkelJoyce Ravid

Reaching for a box of corn flakes is hardly the most exciting way to start the day. But behind those simple, crispy flakes is a complex story. When it was introduced more than a century ago, breakfast cereal was a full-blown phenomenon that changed America’s notions of health and wellness, and helped usher in a new era of processed foods. It was also the product of a long-standing family rivalry.

Howard Markel, best-selling author, physician, and medical historian who teaches at the University of Michigan, tells the intriguing story behind breakfast cereal and the men who created it in a sweeping new book “The Kelloggs: The Battling Brothers of Battle Creek.” Markel chronicles the contentious relationship between Dr. John Harvey Kellogg and his younger brother Will Keith Kellogg. The brothers shared enormous success, but were often at odds and engaged in legal battles. After founding the Battle Creek Sanitarium in 1876, John Harvey Kellogg became the country’s most high-profile physician. Will Kellogg ran the business . . . then commercialized the brothers’ cereal recipes and became one of the era’s great industrialists.


Q. Could you describe the Battle Creek Sanitarium where the Kellogg brothers’ careers began.

A. [Dr. Kellogg] invented that word, by the way. People confuse it with sanatorium, which tends to be a tuberculosis hospital or an invalid home. Sanitarium is sanitation, sanitas, health. He wanted it to be a university of health and basically it was this combination of a grand hotel, medical spa, and medical center. It was the second most common destination on the Michigan Central train after Detroit. Hundreds of people came every day to stay for weeks on end.

Q. What kinds of problems brought people there?

A. Some of them were just looking for the lectures and the bike riding and the exercising. Others were true invalids and were looking for a cure. I talk about the “great American stomach ache.” If you look at the types of food Americans ate back then, it’s no wonder they were all constipated or dyspeptic or flatulent or had ulcers. They were eating heavy, fried, greasy food. Lots of meat. But also, Dr. Kellogg was a superb surgeon, one of the best in the land. They offered all sorts of modern medical care. The two things the Battle Creek Sanitarium had that no other place had — and I think made the difference — was the Kellogg brothers. They needed each other. I don’t think John Harvey would have been as successful without Will. And I knew Will would not have been as successful without John Harvey.


Q. Their business relationship was not a happy one.

A. Nor was their personal relationship. But during their working relationship, John Harvey treated Will — to say badly is an understatement. He would ride his bicycle around his campus and make Will run beside him taking notes. He would go to the bathroom to have a bowel movement and have Will come in the bathroom to take notes. And [Will] never really got full credit for anything, including the development of flaked cereals. The patent in 1895 was given to John Harvey Kellogg but not to Will.

Q. When they created breakfast cereal, what ills were they trying to treat?

A. The idea was to create an easily digestible food. The first cereal was wheat flakes. There was no salt or sugar added. It didn’t taste all that well. But it was easily digested and the invalids just loved it. That’s where Will’s brilliance came. He said: There’s a lot more people who just eat regular breakfast than invalids who need an easily digestible cereal. So, he experimented with other grains. Corn was a much cheaper grain than wheat. When he left the sanitarium, he added a certain amount of malt and sugar and salt, which made it taste better. Will was just brilliant at it. He was the Henry Ford of processed food.


Q. Breakfast cereal was an instant sensation. Was it because of convenience?

A. [It was convenient] to a mother who would have to either fry up bacon and eggs or fry up potatoes or make porridge, which took hours. The notion in the early 1900s that you could take a box and pour it into a bowl, it was truly the technological advance of the age. It really is one of the first processed foods where you take a grain and through 5 miles of conveyor belts and cookery and boxing, something comes out that is completely different. At one point, there were about 100 different cereal companies in Battle Creek.

Q. Popular culture hasn’t always been kind in remembering Dr. Kellogg’s medical practice. What do people misunderstand about him?

A. Frequently he was right, if sometimes for the wrong reason scientifically. In more recent time, there was a great novel “The Road to Wellville” and a movie where John Harvey Kellogg comes off as this . . . almost insignificant, silly character. There were elements of that to be sure. But I think that is unfair to John Harvey Kellogg. He was advocating diets that we advocate today: avoiding meat and having a whole grain, vegetarian-based diet. He advocated exercise, stress-free, and spiritually-fit lives. I think he deserves some credit for that. He really developed the concept of wellness.


Michael Floreak can be reached at michaelfloreak@gmail.com.