John Harvey Kellogg: An Overlooked Pioneer of Wellness and a Very Colorful Character


Dr. Halbert L. Dunn was a character, as is true of many wellness pioneers. The same is true of such luminaries as John W. (Jack) Travis, Bill Hettler, Robert and Judd Allen and Grant Donovan. Apply the term wellness broadly enough, as nearly everyone does, and all health promoters are wellness pioneers. I believe in a view of wellness advancement wherein anyone who writes a book about human flourishing, or speaks to a class or audience about wellbeing, edits a journal or newsletter on the subject, encourages a child or friend or otherwise supports doing more than most to cultivate health and happiness is a wellness pioneer. And a character, as well, since we all have our eccentricities of one kind or another.

There are, however, many health promotion pioneers, characters and advocates who stand out because they made a big name for themselves promoting special lifestyles, patterns of thinking and acting that many now perceive as wellness in nature. A few colorful contemporary examples who focused on fitness and sound diets include Kenneth Cooper, Francois Henri Jack LaLanne, Jane Fonda, Marion Nestle, Michelle Obama and Richard Simmons. Yes, when the terms colorful and exercise are mentioned, there’s no way to ignore Richard Simmons.

Most informed Americans with an interest in healthy lifestyles recognize these names, especially the celebrity types. However, none comes close to having achieved the fame, or the influence, of arguably the most colorful and perhaps most consequential wellness character of all – John Harvey Kellogg (2/26/1852 – 12/14/1943).

Biologic Living

While quite familiar with Dr. Kellogg (I loved T. Coraghessan Boyle’s 1993 novel, The Road to Wellville and the 1994 movie adapted from it starring Anthony Hopkins, Bridget Fonda and Matthew Broderick), a 2017 book about him has reignited my interest. The book title is, The Kelloggs: The Battling Brothers of Battle Creek by physician/ historian Howard Markel (391 pages plus 87 pages of notes and a 25 page index).

I highly recommend it.

On the inside jacket of The Kellogg’s, Dr. Markel proclaims John Harvey the patron saint of the pursuit of wellness and a king of wellness. Throughout the book, references to John’s pioneering role in wellness are extolled, beginning with the introductory page declaration: John Harvey Kellogg and his brother Will introduced and mass-marketed the concept of wellness and, in doing so, they changed how the world eats breakfast. No fewer than 350 million people devour a bowl of Kellogg’s Corn Flakes every day.

The author states again and again that Dr. Kellogg’s biologic living should be seen in the context of today’s wellness movement. Another example: Without doubt, his most lasting contribution to American society was encouraging the active pursuit of wellness… the now commonplace concept of being healthy in mind, body and spirit in order to promote longevity and even prevent illness.

Dr. Kellogg campaigned tirelessly against sedentary lifestyles, obesity, stress and anxiety, lead poisoning (from water conveyed through lead pipes), medications, meat, tobacco, sugar, caffeine, alcohol and overeating. He also campaigned just as tirelessly on the positive side of wellness, for regular, vigorous exercise, fresh air, massage, clean water, stress management, lots of sleep, soybeans and chopped nuts. He backed social reforms, as well, such as better conditions for the poor, women’s suffrage and energy conservation in agricultural practices.

While Dr. Kellogg probably never used or even heard the term wellness, he did name the wellness-like lifestyle he promoted at his famed Battle Creek Sanitarium biologic living. Fair enough.

An Eccentric Genius with Boundless Energy and Ambition

Nobody’s perfect and that surely includes the amazing Dr. Kellogg. Before an eventual falling out over control of the Battle Creek Sanitarian and other issues, he was a protege of Ellen and James White. Ellen was a self-styled prophetess, conjuring self-serving visions of varied kinds to raise money and control her followers.The Seventh Day Adventists of the time were anti-science, as is true of religious fundamentalism today, mixing religious fervor with vegetarianism and other abstentions for healthier living. The Adventist leaders made a habit of predicting the imminent end of the world, along with the Second Coming of Jesus, enlivened by hell fires for nearly all. Initially Dr. Kellogg went a step or two further, railing against the evils of masturbation while insisting upon sexual abstinence, save for purposes of procreation – and only then if married couples so engaged took pains not to enjoy the process too much. (This may have been an element of the doctor’s biologic living philosophy, but I’m not aware of any modern era wellness promoters taking this position. As the co-author of Wellness Orgasms with Grant Donovan, I can assure you it certainly is not discouraged in a REAL wellness orientation.)

Later in his career, after a break with Ellen White and the Adventists, Dr. Kellogg’s religious fervor abated, and his new scriptures were mainly related to the promotion of biologic living in books and lectures, research, philanthropy, interactions with world leaders and national celebrities from multiple walks of life and, of course, his beloved Battle Creek Sanitarium.

Wellness Perspectives of Particular Note

* Dr. Kellogg’s experience in the world led him to believe that people don’t like to be reformed; but they welcome being informed, taught and encouraged to look on the bright side of life, this one and (in his mind) the next.

* Food served up at the San (the Sanitarium) was to be prepared and viewed not only as a preventative against indigestion and illness but as healthy pleasures that enabled diners to partake of a good share of life’s joys.

* Unlike the trend today, Dr. Kellogg promoted gluten, which he considered one of the most highly valued elements of the grain that enriches brain, bone, nerves, muscles and blood.

* After the cessation of ties with Ellen White and the Adventists, Dr. Kellogg’s religious fervor diminished dramatically, and religion in general gave way to a devotion to biologic living, mostly from a secular orientation.

* His beloved Corn Flakes were the culmination of a quest to create the perfect food. Author Markel notes that Kellogg would be appalled to learn that the multinational firm that carries the Kellogg name today derives its riches in good measure from having fortified its products with tons of sugar and artificial flavorings, including such abominations as Frosted Flakes.

* The doctor had a flair for the dramatic. Markel describes his later years being marked by freedom from inhibitions and the onset of entertaining eccentricities. Two habits stand out. One was daily exercise and sunbathing in a skimpy loincloth that barely covered his genitals; the other peculiar habit derived from taking special pride in his bowel movements. To Dr. Kellogg, these specimens testified to the merits of biologic nutritional habits. He bragged to whomever would listen that his poop didn’t stink. He said his stools smelled as sweet as those of a nursing baby – and insisted on proving it. The author describes a typical encounter:

In the middle of conversations, John would excuse himself to go to the bathroom and emerge with a container of his most recent fecal specimen. He then proudly placed it under the noses of his companions to demonstrate its odorless qualities.

The pity is that Monty Python did not produce the The Road to Wellville movie. If John Cleese and company had filmed their interpretation of Dr. Kellogg’s fecal demonstrations, we might not be haunted so much today by the memory of Mr. Creosote’s denouement in The Meaning of Life. (Though we might instead be unable to get the scene of Dr. Kellogg’s demonstration out of minds, either.)

The Dark Side Dr. Kellogg

Dr. Kellogg is rightly faulted for his attachment to and promotion of half-baked theories, which included chemically-produced female castration treatments, immersing patients in chilled, irradiated water, subjecting guests at the Sanitarium to what amounted to forced marches before and after meager meals and electric shock therapy. And then there was his infatuation with eugenics. This was a popular pseudoscience in his day and thereafter, for a while. It was marked by an orientation to culling the gene pool of degenerates with ill-fated, predestined dysfunctional natures or, worse, undesirable racial qualities. However, the doctor had a take on eugenics not shared by its main advocates, namely that with biologic living, a committed individual, or whole segments of the population could, over time, acquire and transmit superior traits. In addition to biologic living, this would transpire in concert with the best hygiene practices and better living conditions. And, no doubt, being master of their domains – Dr. Kellogg never gave up on his war against self-abuse.

(An aside here. As a lecturer, I attempt to interact with an audience. So I’m thinking – it might be fun to take a page from John Harvey Kellogg now and then. I think most folks would enjoy a Kellogg-worthy rant about ghastly habits leading to ruin (e.g., smoking, demon rum, overeating, sugar, etc.), provided they realized it was all theater. Further, they also appreciate his upbeat focus on exercise, vegetables, human flourishing, even breakfast cereal (before his corporate successors took over and frosted the flakes). All this would, of course, be a setup for a climactic finish when all oratorical guns were pointed at the horrors of masturbation. Taking a page from Billy Graham, Benny Hinn, Jim Bakker, Jimmy Swaggart and that ilk, I’ll stage an altar call, with background music of George Beverly Shea singing Just As I Am. I’ll invite audience members to come forward, confess to shaking hands with the Devil, pounding the flounder, pumping the python, yanking the crank – an abomination by any name, and to repent, reform and rejoice in the purity of REAL wellness.

All this will be followed by a big close, one they won’t soon forget. Just when they’re recovering from repenting, I’ll segue into a prideful account extolling the benefits of the Kellogg diet. Taking yet another page from wellness pioneer John Harvey, I’ll describe the rewards of the Kellogg diet that manifest at both ends of the digestive process. Should anyone look dubious about my (Kellogg’s claims), I’ll do a John Harvey – I’ll say: Hold on just a minute: I’m going to go into the backroom but I’ll be right back.

Thirty seconds later, when I emerge with a specimen jar, the crowd will go wild – with fear. And then I’ll theatrically stalk a few folks, asking for volunteer noses willing to test and testify to the merits of my claims.

I hope it’s not necessary to mention that I would not actually be holding the real McCoy in the specimen container – just a look-alike glob of mud rolled to perfection for the purpose.)

A REAL wellness talk should never be boring, or conventional. As I’ve said many times over the years, wellness is too important to be presented, or lived, grimly.


The W. K. Kellogg charitable foundation created by and named for his estranged brother Will is today one of the largest in the world, currently valued at $9.5 billion. It is focused on advancing the health of children and their families in Michigan and throughout the U.S. and around the globe.

John Harvey Kellogg’s energy level and breath of accomplishments are stunning. He not only conceived of, developed and ran the world famous Battle Creek Sanitarium, a world university and spa but also conducted research leading to new food creations, established medical,

nursing and cooking schools, published worldwide best-selling books, pamphlets and reports, ran charitable missions, patented and successfully promoted a variety of mechanical inventions (including exercise machines), funded public health projects, job training programs, soup kitchens and much more. He did all this while attending to the medical needs and worries of the rich, the famous and the powerful, as well as tens of thousands of health seekers not in any these three categories.

As much as anything else, for better or occasionally for worse (as in the eugenics misadventure), he devoted himself to what he believed, correctly more often than not, to the benefit of all mankind.

Be well and whether you call it biologic living, wellness, REAL wellness or something, choose wisely and enjoy life as much as you can.

News For This Month: Services

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