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  • Writer's pictureHelen

Cornflake Challenge

I had only a vague idea that there was a tenuous connection between my family and the Kelloggs of the cornflakes package. But since I got into genealogy, I’ve discovered just how much there is. No blood connections but definite influence.


I mentioned a couple of weeks ago that my paternal grandfather visited the Caterham Sanitarium about 1901. The neologism ‘sanitarium’ intrigued me.  And I became fascinated not only by the man who coined the word - but also by the long fraternal rivalry behind the cornflakes package! It’s recounted in a page turner by Howard Markel that I’ve just gobbled up like a dish of cornflakes: The Kelloggs - the Battling Brothers of Battle Creek.


Dr John Harvey Kellogg,(above right)  claimed that he coined the word ‘sanitarium’ in 1877, one year after he took over the leadership of the ‘Health Reform Institute’ which became the Battle Creek Sanitarium on which Caterham was modelled. With typical chutzpah, Kellogg claimed that by changing two letters, he had modified the more familiar word, ‘sanatorium’ – a health resort for invalid soldiers’ into ‘sanitarium’. His sanitarium, he claimed would be ‘a place where people would cultivate health in every possible way by every means afforded by medical science and by modern hygiene’.


But Kellogg, always the idealist, wanted more. He wanted his sanitarium ‘to combine with the institutional advantages of the modern hospital, the luxuries and comforts of the modern hotel and the genial atmosphere, security and freedom of the home’. It was an extremely tall order but John Harvey Kellogg dealt in tall orders – in some areas of his life.


In the halcyon years when the ‘San’ as it was called,  treated patients with diet, hydrotherapy and exercise in the day and entertained them with performances and lectures from celebrities in the evening, it came somewhere near Kellogg’s ideal. Of course, not all were quite as interested in the ideal diet he promoted - free from meat, tea and coffee, or in the lifestyle free from alcohol which Kellogg promoted relentlessly.  But the idea of combining the luxuries and comforts of the hotel with the benefits of a hospital and the chance to mix with all sorts of distinguished people, proved attractive to patients from all sorts of backgrounds. (Kellogg sometimes overcharged the wealthy so that he could help the poor!)


The San was built on Kellogg’s vision and charisma but it was common knowledge that it could not have thrived as long as it did without the business acumen, the concern for the low paid workers and the dogged attention to financial detail of his younger brother, Will Keith Kellogg.(above left) In the day to day running of the San, Will was the neck on which the institution turned. But John always treated him like a jumped up secretary – and paid him like one too.


After twenty years, Will could take the treatment no longer and went into business for himself with some of the products the brothers had developed. He developed his own company making brilliant use of the emerging practice of mass advertising – to sell Kellogg’s cornflakes – the product originally developed for patients in the San. The two brothers could never agree about who invented them. The outcome was a series of angry arguments and successive lawsuits.


It's a sad but familiar story of idealists and their shadows - especially relevant in radical communities where there is huge focus on developing good things ‘out there’. To admirable people with huge appetites for excellence, of which there have been many in my family and in the religious community in which I have grown up with the health principles of the Kelloggs, the brothers’ lives present a challenge - not to neglect the development of those most difficult of everyday skills: family relationships.

The Battle Creek Sanitarium - before the fire of 1902

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Apr 28

Did you know that John Harvey Kellogg helped Ellen White to persuade the SDA church to buy the estate where Avondale University now is at Cooranbong, NSW, Australia? The first meetings of the embryonic College were held in the Hand and Heart hotel and pub. Here's a sketch of the old Hotel from 1884 (from Reid's Mistake by Clouten). There's also Alan Parker's film The Road to Wellville about Kellogg and the Battle Creek Sanitarium starring Anthony Hopkins (funny, but not necessarily historically accurate).

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