From Cornflakes to Obscurity

Most Americans, at one point or another in their lives, have partaken in a peculiar tradition. This tradition has no cultural heritage, but rather came about through a mixture of trial, accident, marketing, and popularity. Most Americans share the common experience of waking up in the morning, going into the kitchen, and pouring out a bowl of breakfast cereal. But many at the time do not ask the question: Where did this come from? And most cannot imagine a world without cold cereal.


But the truth is a little more than a hundred years ago cereals like Cornflakes and Rice Krispies did not exist. The American breakfast, for the most part, consisted of cold and hot meats and hot porridge, and did not meet the dietary or nutritional standards of the creator of Cornflakes—Dr. John Harvey Kellogg. A health reformer and renowned surgeon, Kellogg accidentally invented the cornflake in his food labs. Originally designed as “roughage” to aid in digestion and alleviate constipation, Kellogg prescribed cornflakes much as any doctor would medicine. For him the goal was to get people healthy rather than to capitalize on his invention.

John Harvey’s brother, William K. Kellogg, worked as an assistant to his older brother and chafed at sometimes less than beneficent treatment. He also wished to expand on the money-making possibilities of cornflakes. While John Harvey was traveling in Europe William K. started his own cornflake factory in Battle Creek (now the Kellogg brand food company) and furthered the enmity with his brother by coating the cornflakes with sugar to make them taste better (the predecessor of Kellogg’s Frosted Cornflakes).

From this point the story of breakfast cereal success diverged from John Harvey’s narrative into its own history. But what about Dr. J. H. Kellogg?

26 Feb 1938 --- John Harvey Kellogg Age 86 --- Image by © Bettmann/CORBIS

26 Feb 1938 — John Harvey Kellogg Age 86

By the 1930s John Harvey had fallen into obscurity. His massive sanitarium at Battle Creek did not survive the rigors of the Great Depression and entered receivership, and Kellogg himself began to feel the limits of his age. He continued, until his death in 1943, to spread his “Gospel of Health” to anyone who would listen.

Since that time only two scholarly works have been produced on Kellogg’s contribution to health reform. Richard W. Schwarz’s biography John Harvey Kellogg, M.D. (Southern Publishing Association, 1970), and Brian C. Wilson’s more recent work in the context of comparative religion Dr. John Harvey Kellogg: and the Religion of Biologic Living (Indiana University Press, 2014). Historically speaking, while there may be two books dedicated to his life and work, this leaves Kellogg in relative obscurity. The Kellogg name is recognized by almost all in America, but not John Harvey or the Battle Creek Sanitarium; and while many of his inventions and techniques are still used in modern medicine, most do not remember the origins of their practices.

So John Harvey Kellogg is not well known outside of those who study him and history in general. This raises some questions: Why study him at all? Why is he important? And why on earth would you choose him as a major focus in a dissertation topic? (Something I am asked a lot). Within the context of transnational and transatlantic history I study the subfield of intercultural transfer. This method examines cultural exchanges in a variety of examples–i.e. holidays, food, music just to name a few–that are taken back and forth across both political and ethnic barriers, and of course the Atlantic itself. These exchanges are created through the movement of individuals with cultural beliefs and practices, or those who are exposed to them–referred to as “agents of transfer.” I believe Kellogg is one of these agents.

Many people I speak to might know about Kellogg, but very few of them realize that he continually traveled and studied medicine in Europe.


Pathologisch-Anatomisches Institut in Vienna, Austria-1898

Kellogg spent a great deal of time in Vienna, Austria the “chief city of health” in Europe, where he studied medicine and techniques. Along with the Imperial City he also visited Berlin, and the Pavlov Institute in Russia. With his many travels, his experiences, and his tendency for learning and sharing, it is reasonable to believe Kellogg to be an agent of transfer between America and Europe in the context of health reform.

The nineteenth-century health reform movements in America and Europe are believed by some to have occurred separate from each other. But in reality while these movements where physically separated by the Atlantic they were connected through the travels and studies of Kellogg and others. Kellogg, however, has the best chance of being an agent of transfer due to his immense amount of correspondence, publishing, lectures, and the fact that he ran the mammoth Sanitarium at Battle Creek; where he could implement the techniques learned in Europe. My hope is that through my research I can not only demonstrate a shared history between America and Europe within the context of health reform, but also raise John Harvey Kellogg out of the obscurity of a breakfast cereal name.


One thought on “From Cornflakes to Obscurity

  1. Pingback: Kellogg and the Saints? | The Temple of Health

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s