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Emperors of Wellness: The Kellogg Brothers


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The Kelloggs: The Battling Brothers of Battle Creek (Pantheon Books, 2017) is a wonderful read. Howard Markel tells the story of two brothers — John Harvey Kellogg (1852-1943) and Will Keith Kellogg (1860-1951) — who “were magnificent showmen, resolute empire builders, and unwavering visionaries.” Readers whose primary interest is in the brothers’ Adventist roots will derive much benefit from it along with, perhaps, a measure of irritation. But Markel presents the Kelloggs in the broader sweep of American history. Just as contemporaries Henry Ford and Thomas Edison “ruled over vast realms of automobiles and electricity,” they “set forth a veritable fountain of fitness and, in the process, became industrial kings of health” (xxix).

Markel is an historian of medicine at the University of Michigan and author of An Anatomy of Addiction: Sigmund Freud, William Halsted, and the Miracle Drug Cocaine (Random House, 2011) and other acclaimed works for the non-fiction market. The Kelloggs ranges widely through the cultural landscape, and in the process, Markel illumines developments in industry, advertising, marketing, and communications technology, as well as science, health, and medicine from the late nineteenth century through the mid twentieth.

The book also tells a deeply poignant story of battling brothers, both in their own ways driven by humanitarian impulses, dependent on each other for their outsized achievements, but whose relationship was marred by abuse, acrimony, pettiness, even cruelty. As their sister Emma put it, “The Kellogg men could be mean” (387). Markel tells this story with sensitivity and insight.

Of particular interest to Spectrum readers, the two battling Kellogg brothers each, arguably, made a more visible mark on American society than any other Seventh-day Adventist in the church’s history. Despite their eventual alienation from the church, their creative genius and energy flowered in that portion of American cultural soil distinctively cultivated by Seventh-day Adventism.

Their story thus can also be viewed as an epic drama in the interaction between religion and American culture. More specifically, it is a revealing episode in the struggles of an American-born sectarian religious alternative to navigate the interface with the wider society through its second generation. Markel does not provide much by way of analysis to illumine this side of the Kelloggs’ story. He does not seem to have aspired to do so. In fairness then, neither this relative omission nor the occasional commission of distorted or misleading statements regarding Adventism seriously mar the book’s achievement.

While open and often detailed about their human weaknesses and eccentricities, Markel seeks to rescue the historical reputations of the Kellogg brothers — John Harvey from undeserved distortion and Will Keith from undeserved obscurity — and give their achievements due recognition.

Some of the doctor’s most loudly trumpeted theories have been discredited and these, especially regarding sex, have made him an inviting target for ridicule. But Markel is persuasive, at times eloquent, in calling attention to the larger reality that “many of his sounder concepts of wellness remain sage prescriptions written out millions of times each day” (386). Indeed, Dr. Kellogg appears to have been largely responsible for introducing to American society the very concept of the “active pursuit of wellness” to enhance life and prevent illness (xxi).

Markel credits John Kellogg for “prescience” — decades ahead of the medical profession generally — on the health hazards of tobacco and obesity. In addition to these two major examples, another appears all the more striking in the light of the public health disaster, 140 years later, in the nearby city of Flint, Michigan: In 1875, Dr. Kellogg warned against “the dangers of lead poisoning from consuming water supplied through lead pipes” (xxi).

Moreover, Markel laments the pervasive ignorance about John’s role in developing health foods as “a historical shame worthy of both correction and recognition.” Soy milk, psyllium, bran cereals, and nut foods, consumed throughout the world in an innumerable variety of health food products constitute John’s “most lasting contributions to human health and nutrition,” he writes (335).

The imprint of Adventist teaching concerning healthful living as a component of the restoration of sinful humanity to the divine image is obvious in Kellogg’s philosophy of “biologic living”: disease and degeneracy could be overcome and apocalyptic disaster for the nation staved off by adherence to healthful practices. His greatest achievements stemmed from this master idea. So did his greatest failures.

The cognate idea that every sexual act depletes the “vital force” driving the redemptive process contributed to his much-lampooned pronouncements about the dire consequences of masturbation and barbaric remedies for incorrigible practitioners, along with a once-per-month benchmark for marital conjugation. The “biologic living” philosophy also drove what Markel calls John Kellogg’s greatest “misadventure” (298) — the eugenics crusade that overshadowed his post-Adventist decades.

Markel clarifies that Kellogg’s core conviction can be more precisely termed euthenics. According to this theory “a committed individual (and, thus, the population at large) could acquire a superior set of inheritable traits through healthy living, improved hygiene, and better living conditions” (303, emphasis supplied). Kellogg’s humanitarian idealism for reaching those who were the most damaged by disease and degeneracy was directed toward this end, and strikingly manifested in the Chicago medical mission launched in the 1890s.

However, the notion that “superior traits” acquired through healthful practices can be passed on genetically has been thoroughly rejected by the scientific community. And Kellogg’s intense desire to advance his euthenics led him to hitch his cause with the eugenics movement that sought ways to limit reproduction among “undesirables.” Eugenics reached the zenith of its influence among the nation’s intellectual and cultural elite during the 1910s to 1930s and was bound together with other pervasive notions such as Herbert Spencer’s so-called social Darwinism — “survival of the fittest” in human society — and Anglo-Saxon racial superiority.

Markel details how Kellogg, through his Race Betterment Foundation, associated with and actively promoted some of the most strident advocates of these pernicious views, which would be horrifically implemented by the Nazi regime. On occasion, Kellogg’s own rhetoric crossed the line into full-blown eugenics. Here again, Markel makes no attempt to minimize or apologize for this stain on Kellogg’s legacy, yet he also provides the context essential for readers to make their own judgments. He informs us that Kellogg “assiduously veered away from the anti-Semitic rhetoric of the eugenics establishment” (313). In fact, it seems that Kellogg’s appreciation for the Jewish biblical heritage, including dietary laws, prompted him to turn his own racial pseudo-science against the Nazi project. In a 1935 editorial in the periodical Good Health, he denounced the measures that the German government directed against “a people (the Jews) whose blood is far superior to their own as indicated by all racial tests” (quoted, 313).

Somewhat similarly, Kellogg combined racist theories about Anglo-Saxon superiority and cultivating the social purity of the white race with tangible, extensive activism to “uplift” African Americans through medical missionary work. Also, against the overwhelming trend in American society — and in the Adventist church — during the early decades of the twentieth century, he stood in unyielding opposition to the color line. Though Markel briefly touches on it, this is one of the topics on which the reader is better served by Brian C. Wilson’s Dr. John Harvey Kellogg and the Religion of Biologic Living (Indiana University Press, 2014), reviewed by James L. Hayward in Spectrum 43:1 (Winter 2015).

I cannot resist inserting here Kellogg’s assessment of Lewis C. Sheafe, a black Baptist preacher who converted to Adventism in 1896 after a stay at Battle Creek Sanitarium, as evidence that Kellogg’s form of racism did not place arbitrary limits on the skills or qualities that individuals of African descent might possess. I judge Kellogg’s characterization of Sheafe as “a more liberally educated and cultivated man” than any other Adventist minister and furthermore that, none of the church’s white ministers “can begin to stand next to him,” to be a genuine tribute to the man even if it may also have been a back-handed expression of his low esteem for the denomination’s clergy in general.*

John Kellogg’s noteworthy humanitarian compassion and generally ebullient personality also combined paradoxically with a deep strain of vindictiveness and an “oceanic ego” displayed in the abusiveness and mental cruelty that accompanied his exploitation of his younger brother Will Keith. Despite his eventual preeminence in the breakfast food industry, in the historiography of Adventism, Will Kellogg is a background player in the drama that revolved around his brother. As one who had only a cursory awareness of W.K. Kellogg’s career, I found Markel’s treatment of him one of the most revelatory and rewarding aspects of the book.

In 1880, Will Kellogg began more than a quarter century as manager of the Battle Creek Sanitarium plant, funds, and personnel, and all-around “fixer.” He routinely put in eighty hours or more of work, often enduring humiliating treatment from his brother, at minimal compensation. As indispensable as such grinding, unglamorous service was to the San’s success and his brother’s rise to fame along with it, Will developed in the process his own, less flashy forms of genius. He was a co-creator, not a mere underling, in the development of palatable breakfast cereal and other health foods. More distinctively, he became an adept innovator in business procedures and product marketing.

As early as 1898, Will Kellogg told the Adventist denominational leadership that the food industry had potential to make the San a “sideshow” (252). By the time Will managed to break free from his brother’s domineering shadow and establish his own food company in 1906, John’s relationship with the Adventist church leadership was at the final breaking point. It may be, as Markel implies, that John, seemingly energized by conflict, needed a new enemy, and turned his guns on Will. At any rate, a pattern similar to John’s warfare with Adventist leaders would bedevil the brothers’ relationship until the doctor’s death in 1943: oscillation from bitter accusation and condescending sarcasm to expressions of regret and confession, short-lived moves toward reconciliation, then duplicity and self-serving maneuvers sparking a new round of denunciation and conflict, exacerbated by misunderstandings, and all of it amidst interminable lawsuits (not necessarily in that order).

Like his brother at the Battle Creek Sanitarium, W.K. Kellogg would rule as an autocrat over a phenomenally successful business empire. Though humanitarian service, compassionate healing, and enduring principles of wellness stand at the forefront of John’s legacy, Markel makes the telling point that through his business acumen, Will surpassed his brother in leaving behind a lasting institutional resource of prodigious benefit to humanity. The cereal company slipped away from family control and a good distance from its founding values, presenting the nation’s families with the likes of Sugar Frosted Flakes and Cocoa Crisps. Yet Will “meticulously designed the W.K. Kellogg Foundation” to perpetuate as a source of benefit to the health and welfare of children, one which to the present day provides billions of dollars annually toward that end (366-67; 386).

When it comes to the role of Adventism in the careers of the battling brothers and their benevolent empires, Markel’s analysis is uneven but occasionally sparkles. I would encourage Adventist readers who may be bothered (and I’m preaching to myself here), for any number of reasons, by some of Markel’s assertions, not to allow the reactive mode to blind them to what can be learned from the richly-informed perspective that this accomplished scholar and author brings to our history.

For example, his psychological antennae pick up relational dynamics between Ellen White and John Harvey Kellogg that I found illuminating. Markel observes that the prophet’s admonitions were “perfectly aimed at John’s psychological buttons” (96) and that she knew “how to play on the doctor’s insecurities” in attributing his surgical successes to the presence of “heavenly beings” (198-199). Such observations might be critiqued as unduly reductionist, closed to the possibility that spirituality might have its own integrity. For me, the portrayal of Ellen White as a savvy religious counselor, not intimidated by a man who overwhelmed just about everyone else with his intellect, wit, superior achievement, and sheer force of personality, is a valuable stimulus to fuller understanding of how the “spirit of prophecy” functions.

Still, it must be said that while he does not directly denounce or ridicule, Markel tends to trivialize and marginalize Ellen White’s role in the Kellogg story. He gives a relatively straightforward summary of White as a nineteenth-century health reformer and narrates her role, along with her husband, James, in fostering John’s medical training and development as a leader. Yet his account conveys at best minimal appreciation for the role of Ellen White and Adventist faith in generating and sustaining the entire medical missionary enterprise that Dr. Kellogg came to lead and dramatically expand through his own prodigious gifts and energy.

Markel does not seem to harbor a particular malice toward Adventism or regard it as a deeply pernicious force. Rather he seems to regard it primarily as a petty, cramping, sometimes debilitating influence, the sooner dispensed with the better. His perspective does not seem to contain much scope for the possibility of faith as a creative, life-enhancing influence.

He acknowledges the “deep vein of Christian spirit and service that ran through most everything John ever did” (33). Outside of that, though, the main contribution of Adventist faith to the brothers’ achievements comes, in Markel’s view, by way of energizing reaction against its onerous restrictions and psychologically damaging preachments. He suggests, for example, that Will’s determination to direct his philanthropy to children stemmed in part from the likelihood that, as a boy, he was emotionally scarred by “his parents’ apocalyptic, if not frightening, religious beliefs and their cold child rearing” (368). As for John, “the Church’s attempts to contain his genius and belittle his industry” left him “emotionally devastated” (169).

Like the example I discussed above, these observations contain useful insights. But the issue here is balance, or better, a skewed and constricted portrayal when the evidence is available for a richer, more fully developed one. Throughout Markel’s narrative, Ellen White and other Adventist leaders “grouse,” “grumble,” “glower,” “complain,” “criticize,” and “snipe” but apparently have no perspective of their own on the conflict worthy of consideration, beyond reactionary condemnation.

Markel concludes his summary of the controversy over Kellogg’s book, The Living Temple, with dramatic flourish: “The book and its author, Sister White commanded, must be extinguished” (169). Yet we hear nothing of her repeated efforts to bring about reconciliation between Kellogg and General Conference leaders, even as late as 1904, after she herself delivered some her most searing rebukes of the doctor. Or that she also directed sharp warnings and reprimands to Kellogg’s opponents in the process.

I would not mention the shortcomings I see in the Adventist part of the story if I did not think they are important. However, it would be unfair to grouse very much at Markel for not in every respect writing the book I wanted to read. His subject is vast, and my sense is that he simply is not all that interested in the intricacies surrounding John Harvey’s attempts at a new theological synthesis or the twists and turns of his titanic struggle with Ellen White and A.G. Daniells over the direction of the Adventist movement.

Fortunately, Wilson’s Dr. John Harvey Kellogg shines when it comes to these topics.  And, as outstanding as are the contributions of Wilson, and now Markel, we can look forward to learning much more about the endlessly fascinating Kellogg saga from a forthcoming work by Ronald Numbers, anticipated from Harvard University Press in 2019.


Notes & References:
*Quoted in Douglas Morgan, Lewis C. Sheafe: Apostle to Black America (Hagerstown, MD: Review and Herald, 2010), 16-17.


Douglas Morgan is a graduate of Union College in Lincoln, Nebraska, and the University of Chicago (PhD, History of Christianity with an emphasis in American religious and social movements). Since 1994 he has served on the faculty of Washington Adventist University in Takoma Park, Maryland. His publications include Adventism and the American Republic (University of Tennessee Press, 2001) and Lewis C. Sheafe: Apostle to Black America (Review and Herald, 2010).

Image courtesy of Pantheon Books.


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