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How the Kellogg brothers transformed breakfast and pioneered ‘wellness’

The Kellogg brothers transformed the American breakfast. They promoted revolutionary ideas we now consider central to wellness, and celebrities flocked to their famous sanitarium and spa in Battle Creek, Michigan. But their commercial success came at a heavy personal cost. William Brangham talks to Dr. Howard Markel about his new book, "The Kelloggs: The Battling Brothers of Battle Creek."

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    It is said that roughly 350 million people ate a bowl of Kellogg's Corn Flakes today. The ubiquitous cereal is a testament to our modern-day revolution in ready-to-eat foods.

    And it's also the brainchild of two fascinating brothers from Battle Creek, Michigan.

    William Brangham is here with the latest installment of the "NewsHour" Bookshelf.

  • William Brangham:

    America's stomach ached for much of the 19th and early 20th century. Walt Whitman called it the great American evil, the nation's intense, widespread indigestion, fueled in part by what Americans were eating for breakfast, potatoes cooked in congealed fat, heavily salted meats, gruels and mush slow-cooked for hours over wood-burning stoves.

    Enter the Kellogg brothers. Out of their medical complex, grand hotel and spa in Battle Creek, Michigan came an invention, ready-to-eat, easily digestible, quick-to-prepare breakfast cereals.

    Dr. John Harvey Kellogg, a beloved doctor to stars and presidents, baked the first batches of flaked cereal with his younger brother, Will Kellogg. Will eventually turned that recipe into corn flakes and birthed a multibillion-dollar company.

    Together, the brothers transformed the American breakfast and helped foster many of the ideas now considered central to health and wellness.

    But it all came at great personal cost. Their story is the focus of a new book out in paperback, "The Kelloggs: The Battling Brothers of Battle Creek."

    It's by Dr. Howard Markel, a medical historian at the University of Michigan and a regular columnist for the "PBS NewsHour."

    And Dr. Howard Markel joins me now.

    The Kellogg name in American society is now, of course, hopelessly associated with breakfast and breakfast foods, but even before that, they had, especially John, had some very pioneering ideas about health, well before their time.

  • Dr. Howard Markel:

    Absolutely.

    You know, Dr. Kellogg created the term that we would now call wellness. And so he prescribed all sorts of healthy living practices, with the notion that it's far easier to prevent a disease than to treat it after the body has broken down.

    So he advised about good diets, grain and vegetable diets, but no meat. He advised against nicotine or smoking of any kind, caffeine, alcohol. And he prescribed lots of exercise and fresh air, when people were not doing that at all.

  • William Brangham:

    They created a sanitarium in Battle Creek, and — what was called a sanitarium. And it centered around what you referred to as biologic living. This was a term that they coined?

  • Dr. Howard Markel:

    Yes.

  • William Brangham:

    What does that mean?

  • Dr. Howard Markel:

    That was the doctor's term for wellness and the thought that you took care of your body.

    It came from some of his religious beliefs as a Seventh Day Adventist. But he added on to them, using the best medical literature of the day, always shoehorning the latest science into his world view. And he wanted to teach both the healthy and the unhealthy how to live healthier lives.

    But it was also a complete medical center, and a grand hotel and spa all rolled into one. Tens of thousands of people came to Battle Creek every year. It was the most popular train stop on the Michigan Central between Chicago and Detroit.

    And lots of celebrities came as well. Johnny Weissmuller, the old Tarzan from the MGM movies, he would do his Tarzan yell just before the meal started.

  • William Brangham:

    Sure.

  • Dr. Howard Markel:

    Amelia Earhart, Thomas Edison, Henry Ford, John D. Rockefeller Jr., they all came.

  • William Brangham:

    One of the Dr. Kellogg's goals was to develop an easily digestible breakfast food, and that's the cereal that we now all know, which maybe turned out to be not the healthiest food after all.

    But why was that his goal? What was the — what was his drive there?

  • Dr. Howard Markel:

    Well, you have to remember who he was seeing. They were mostly very constipated people who ate a terrible…

  • William Brangham:

    Literally.

  • Dr. Howard Markel:

    Literally, who saw — it wasn't — not just an adjective.

    (LAUGHTER)

  • Dr. Howard Markel:

    But they were eating terrible, fatty diets. They were often obese.

    So he thought, if I could make grains more digestible, maybe that would help these invalided patients, as he called them.

    And so first it was just rolls, until one lady broker dentures on these hard double-baked rolls and wanted him to replace her dentures. Then he ground them up into little, tiny kernels. And, finally, they came up with flaked cereal.

    And it is indeed easily digested, and, probably, if you have a stomach ache, that might be a good food to eat.

  • William Brangham:

    But this whole process was what gave birth to, I guess, then wheat flakes, and now corn flakes as we know it.

  • Dr. Howard Markel:

    Yes, they were originally wheat flakes.

    And then John's little brother, Will, who really ran the sanitarium, experimented with it on and on and on, and he developed corn flakes because corn was a cheaper grain and it was tastier.

    And when it came out in 1906, it took the world by storm, because now even a father could make breakfast simply by pouring it out of the box. And people just loved it.

  • William Brangham:

    You write a lot about the relationship between the brothers.

    And for as close as that working relationship and personal relationship was, it does sound that they really — there was a real antipathy between them.

    Can you describe a little bit about them?

  • Dr. Howard Markel:

    Yes, that's putting it mildly.

    John Harvey was eight years older than Will, and he treated Will like a little brother. But he could also dominate him and treat him very badly.

    So, when the doctor was riding his bicycle across the campus of the sanitarium, Will had to run along and take notes. When the doctor had one of his five daily bowel movements, he would ask Will to come or order Will to come into the bathroom with him and take notes on his latest lecture or his latest book chapter, so that he wouldn't miss it.

    And no wonder Will hated his guts. And with all this dominant relationship, Will finally decided, at the age of 46, to leave the doctor's employ after 25 years and founded what people Kellogg's.

    They did sue each other for almost a decade over who had the right to be the real Kellogg. The doctor said, well, I'm the famous Dr. Kellogg. And he was more famous than Will at the time, bestselling author, lecturer and so on.

    Will said, well, look, I have advertised everywhere. I have spent millions of dollars. I have the largest electric sign in the world in Times Square. And I…

  • William Brangham:

    He really was a commercial genius.

  • Dr. Howard Markel:

    He was brilliant. He adopted advertising. He adopted electricity in his factories, conveyor belts.

    He marketed to the perfect demographic, mothers and their children. He invented the toy in the box, which was really great, because it took up space and was cheaper than the corn flakes.

    And so he said, I'm the real Kellogg, and then all the way up to the Michigan State Supreme Court. And the judges said, when we think of Kellogg's, we think of the cereal.

    So, Will won.

    The problem was that, after that, they rarely spoke to one another, and they lost a great deal. This is such a great American story. The fact that they had this sadness in their life, this rift, to me, was the great tragedy of the brothers Kellogg.

  • William Brangham:

    The book is "The Kelloggs: The Battling Brothers of Battle Creek."

    Dr. Howard Markel, thank you very much.

  • Dr. Howard Markel:

    Thank you.

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