Editor's Choice

The Kelloggs: The Battling Brothers of Battle Creek

August 04, 2017


Howard Markel has written a brilliant, expansive book of medical and industrial history, entrepreneurship and management, and a bitter sibling rivalry.

The Kelloggs: The Battling Brothers of Battle Creek by Howard Markel, Pantheon, 544 pages, Hardcover, August 2017, ISBN 9780307907271

John Harvey Kellogg was one of the America’s foremost luminaries, a widely respected, celebrity-of-his-day physician famous for having “introduced and mass marketed the concept of ‘wellness.’” His Battle Creek Sanitarium was world famous, attracting the most wealthy and famous people of the day. Will Keith Kellogg was one of America’s greatest industrialist magnates, who built an empire on one of the brothers’ wellness inventions—flaked breakfast cereal. One was a giant of intellect, another of industry, and they would change the way the world eats breakfast. But that’s not all. Howard Markel, in a brilliant (and big!) new biography of the two brothers, The Kelloggs, tells us:


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.


John, for all his great attributes, did not display much in the way of one of the greatest—brotherly love—even toward his actual brother, eight years his junior. He had a vicious cruel streak, and ruled over the Sanitarium with an iron hand and expansive ego, constantly diminishing and demeaning Will for the over two decades they worked together.

But the story begins with the Kellogg family’s arrival in Battle Creek, Michigan, before the brothers were born. The family endured a hard frontier life there, at a time when the average life expectancy hovered around forty years old. Being a historian of medicine, the author tells the story of life there largely in those terms, detailing the Kellogg family’s many afflictions. Their father John Preston almost dies multiple times, and the way doctors (mis)treated him of his various afflictions would be humorous if it weren’t so horrifying. His first wife, Mary Ann, in addition to working dawn to dusk every day of her life, is also almost constantly pregnant or nursing, giving birth to five children before dying of consumption days before her thirtieth birthday. Their father’s second wife, Ann Janette, first got to know the family as a teenager when she was hired to help look after the children and maintain the household as Mary Ann convalesced. When Mary Ann died, John Preston convinced her to return and become his wife, and:


Ann Janette reared five small children grieving the loss of their mother all the while she delivered another eleven babies to the Kellogg brood.


John Harvey and Will Keith were two of those eleven. But death and disease were their almost constant companion in their early years:


John Preston and the late Mary Ann’s two daughters (Julia, age thirteen, and Martha, age twelve), both died of infectious maladies in 1852, in addition to four more of Anne Jeanette’s children who died between 1849 and 1858.


John Harvey Kellogg himself lost a lung to tuberculosis before he turned 20, and suffered from severe colitis that led to frequent constipation and hemorrhoids, and eventually to “one of the most painful, chronic maladies known to man, an anal fissure, which is, literally, a tear in that highly sensitive spot.” I will spare you the details here. Markel will not. What it demonstrates is a deeply personal motivation and back-story to the development of ready-to-eat breakfast grains to replace the heavier, fattier breakfasts Americans were used to in an effort to help end the scourge of what Walt Whitman called "the great American evil”—indigestion. The diet of Americans at this time was atrocious, and Markel tells us the elder John Kellogg suffered from a decades-long diarrhea.

For his part, Will Keith suffered from several bouts of malaria, common in both the Deep South and up through Midwest and the time. “The entire state of Michigan,” he later wrote, “was known for its malaria.”

Other than their endurance of childhood illnesses, the brothers had little in common. John was boastful and outgoing where Will was insecure and shy. Where John was always the brightest student in any room, Will was considered the slowest, in part due to a severe nearsightedness that went undiagnosed until he was 20 years old. John was hired at twelve to work in Church Review and Herald Publishing Company, which espoused the health reform principles advocated by the Seventh-day Adventist Church, and was sent to Medical School by Adventist leaders James and Ellen White. Will cut his chops working in, and eventually running, his father’s broom factory. He would eventually hit the road as the firm’s traveling salesman, try to save his brother Albert’s broom firm in Kalamazoo (a town he would later return to attend business college), and helped a son of the Whites run a broom factory in far-off Houston. Even those brooms had a role to play in the message of the Adventist faith, reinforcing the idea of keeping the home healthy and clean.

But the story really picks up when John returns from Belleview Hospital Medical College in New York City. Upon his return, at the tender age of twenty-four, he took up the reigns of the Adventists’ failing Western Health Reform Institute. But his age belied his sense of importance. He demanded independence to follow a scientific path rather than purely Adventist one, and was authoritarian in his leadership once he had it, tolerating no challenge—even from his former benefactors and founders of the Institute, James and Ellen White. He changed the name to Battle Creek Sanitarium, and spent the years from 1876 to 1890 quickly expanding its scientific mission and physical footprint:


Thus, in a span of only fourteen years, the Sanitarium’s physical plant evolved from a two-story converted home into a massive, beautiful, and luxurious medical center; it was so grand that it employed over one thousand people, cared for seven to ten thousand patients each year, farmed over four hundred acres of land to grow the vegetables, fruit, and dairy products his guests consumed daily, and operated a canning and food manufacturing facility, laundry, charity hospital, creamery, and a resort comprised of twenty cottages (reserved for the most wealthy of the worried well) overlooking Goguac Lake.


But, “Without fear of contradiction,” Markel insists, “the most important move John made in insuring the Sanitarium’s success began in 1880 when he hired Will as his assistant.” It was Will that oversaw all of the editing, printing, binding, and distribution of his brother's many books and magazines, managed the health food company and various medical manufacturing concerns of the Sanitarium, as well as the overall administration of the entire Battle Creek Sanitarium itself. John was the Sanitarium’s undisputed star and figurehead, but it was Will who really ran the daily operations of the place:


Few people said loudly, at least in the doctor’s presence, but it was widely accepted that that the Sanitarium prospered because of two Kelloggs, not one. The doctor was the San’s showman and carnival barker while Will kept the place running smoothly and served as the brake to his brother’s tendency to make poor and costly business decisions.


As mentioned above, the brothers had their hands in many different enterprises, but the undisputed, if unlikely star, is flaked grain. To get there we first get a good education in gastroenterology and Dr. Kellogg’s central role in that burgeoning field at the time. When we get the history of the cereal itself, we come to understand the important role the doctor’s wife Ella played in the process of inventing flaked cereal, and so much else at the Sanitarium. Will and John spent countless hours experimenting with different production techniques, and Will eventually perfected the manufacturing process and made it into the Sanitarium’s most successful product. But John was always resistant to marketing it more widely, hindering what would prove to be explosive potential for growth.

If his most important move was to hire Will, his most destructive was treating him so horrendously. He was forced to work as many as 120 hours per week away from his growing family, and was poorly paid. He was never given an official title, and didn’t get his own office until 1890, when he was afforded what amounted to a dark closet. All the while, he was also required to act as personal valet to his brother, even trimming his beard and shining his shoes for him. It gets worse:


While making he rounds across the Sanitarium’s vast campus, Dr. Kellogg often rode his bicycle from building to building while insisting that his brother, pad and paper in hand, jog along side him recording his every creative thought. At other times, the doctor demanded Will accompany him into the bathroom, a la Lyndon Johnson, so as not to waste any time even as he defecated.


He endured such treatment as the Sanitarium’s bookkeeper, a “business manager without official title,” as Markel puts it, for over two decades before he left to start his own enterprise. It was not an amicable exit, but he did secure John’s approval to start a corn flakes cereal company in return for cash and stock in the company, and:


A mere three years later, Will’s company was producing 120,000 cases of Corn Flakes a day.


And then John sued him. John lost, and it poisoned their relationship even further—ending any hope of affability between them for the rest of their lives.

The corporate history of Kellogg's, however, was just beginning. The lessons offered there—on entrepreneurship, marketing and advertising, kindness and compassion in leadership, and sound management of both business and philanthropy—are many. It is also a great history of the industry, and the industries around it. You’ll learn about Kellogg’s competition: which included Henry Perky, inventor of the Shredded Wheat that predated the Kellogg’s Corn Flakes and that John tried to buy before the brothers found the secret to their recipe, and Charles W. Post, the inventor of Grape-Nuts, who was a former Sanitarium patient who worked on the Kellogg’s experiments and absconded with their recipes and started a rival company right in Battle Creek. Kellogg and Post, of course, remain competitors to this day. And both, the companies that have brought us the likes of Sugar Smack, Pop-Tarts, and Cocoa Pebbles for breakfast, were started as health food companies. (Most nutritionists today, Markel informs us, don't think flaked grain cereal is especially good for you, either.)

There’s no better midsummer’s read, in my mind, than a biography or narrative big enough to act as a doorstop. The Kelloggs offers even more. I haven’t even been able to scratch the surface of it all here. I'm probably doing John a bad turn here by not mentioning the many ways in which he was charitable, kind, and good. I didn’t even touch on the fire that destroyed the Sanitarium six months after Will left to start his own cereal company, or how he returned for over two years to help rebuild it—two years he described as the hardest of his life. One could devote an entire review to the large swaths of the book on Kellogg’s, the company, alone—which I may have done had I not written so many words before that tale begins, on page 236! The Kelloggs is a brilliant biography, a medical and industrial (even natural and environmental) history, a great lesson in entrepreneurship, leadership, and management, and a great family drama all rolled into one.

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