Prof writes book on legendary health pioneer, John Harvey Kellogg

contact: Mark Schwerin
| WMU News
Dr. Brian C. Wilson


KALAMAZOO, Mich.—Thinking of Battle Creek, millions of people recall sending their cereal box tops to the Cereal City in exchange for prizes that arrived in mailboxes across the country.

But Battle Creek history possesses another, equally rich legacy that a Western Michigan University professor has mined to assemble a book about the city's health and wellness past and its central figure, Dr. John Harvey Kellogg.

Dr. Brian C. Wilson, professor of comparative religion, didn't start off writing a book about Kellogg, the older brother of cereal magnate W.K. Kellogg. He was interested in writing about the religious history of Battle Creek, which was founded as a Quaker town and became a hotbed for spiritualism, attracting other, radical religious groups.

"I started reading about the Seventh-day Adventists, who showed up in 1855, and from there, of course, you can't study the history of Adventism in Battle Creek without bumping into John Harvey Kellogg," Wilson recounts. "I started reading about John Harvey Kellogg and realized that this was a really, really interesting story."

The result is the 225-page book "Dr. John Harvey Kellogg and the Religion of Biologic Living." Published by Indiana University Press, the recently released book is available on

Pop culture myths

Most of the general public's knowledge of Kellogg is colored by misconceptions perpetuated in works of popular culture, such as "The Road to Wellville," a novel by T. Coraghessan Boyle, and subsequent film by the same name featuring an all-star cast.

"It's a funny, funny novel and accurate about a lot of things," says Wilson, who is from California and knew little about Kellogg. "But it really paints John Harvey Kellogg as this kind of megalomaniacal quack. And as I read more about him and his own papers and books, I really got a great deal more respect for him and what he achieved."

Kellogg grew up in what essentially was then a small, semi-frontier town, yet created what became the most famous health-and-wellness center in the United States and possibly the world. From 1876 to 1943, Kellogg presided over the Battle Creek Sanitarium, which one observer described as a "combination 19th-century European health spa and 20th-century Mayo Clinic." The "San," as it came to be known, was founded in 1866 under the auspices of the Seventh-day Adventist Church as the Western Health Reform Institute. It grew under Kellogg's guiding and charismatic hand into a massive health resort encompassing a hospital, research facilities, medical and nursing schools, and more.

Even the breakfast cereal industry is a spinoff of the Kellogg brothers' quest for more healthy dietary alternatives. J.H. Kellogg was a huge proponent of a vegetarian diet and, along with his younger brother, Will Keith, discovered the flaking process and invented the cornflake.

Eventually, the two brothers had a falling out. W.K. Kellogg, who was eager to start his own cereal company, did so against his brother's wishes. Kellogg Co. became the world's largest breakfast cereal company, while J.H. Kellogg concentrated on his beloved sanitarium and opened a branch in Miami.

The Battle Creek Sanitarium flourished through the early 1900s, even surviving a huge fire in 1902 that burned it to the ground. It was rebuilt in resounding fashion, and twin towers were later added.

"Dr. John Harvey Kellogg and the Religion of Biologic Living"

"Dr. John Harvey Kellogg and the Religion of Biologic Living"

Precipitous decline

Then came the Great Depression, and the sanitarium went bankrupt in 1933. The number of guests, who in years past had included movie stars, writers, artists, rich industrialists like Henry Ford and John D. Rockerfeller, and even Presidents Taft and Harding, plummeted. The San declined precipitously through the 1940s. Its spectacular buildings were eventually sold to the federal government and became Percy Jones Hospital, where wounded soldiers returning from World War II were treated, including former Vice President Bob Dole and former U.S. Senators Philip Hart and Daniel Inouye. Today it houses several government agencies as the Hart-Dole-Inouye Federal Center.

One of Wilson's goals in writing the book was to correct the caricature of Kellogg within the larger story of the Seventh-day Adventists' abiding concern for physical health. Kellogg also had a falling out with the church over his religious views and tensions over the running of the sanitarium. The church excommunicated him in 1907 and Kellogg assumed complete control of his "Temple of Health."

"Seen in this light, Kellogg emerges as less a quack and more an extraordinarily energetic innovator and activist, albeit one constrained by the cultural and scientific horizons of the period just after the Civil War," Wilson writes in the book's preface.

In all, it took Wilson nearly six years to research and write the book. In the end, he tried to create something that would have a broad appeal.

"It's really aimed at not only academics," Wilson says, "but also history buffs--people who are interested in local history, history of medicine or just Americana."

For more news, arts and events, visit