John Harvey Kellogg And His Anti-Masturbation Cereals

The controversial life of America’s cereal king

John Harvey Kellogg was born February 26th, 1852, in Tyrone Michigan. To say that he was a complicated man doesn’t quite do him, or the controversy surrounding him, justice. While we might imagine him as a devoted industrialist praying at the altar of 19th capitalism, he was, in fact, a deeply flawed, troubled and religious man, riddled with enigmas.

J.H Kellogg

To understand J.H Kellogg’s beliefs about the world he found himself in, it helps to look at his personal beliefs. A vocal member of the Seventh Day Adventist Church, after gaining his medical degree the now Dr Kellogg would go on to lead the Battle Creek Sanatorium in Michigan, which was owned and operated by The Seventh Day Adventist Church.

The Church stands outside many mainstream Christian viewpoints, focusing much of its attention on the Second Coming, as well as promoting healthy eating and vegetarianism, and encouraging members to be chaste, to abstain from alcohol or smoking and, critically for Kellogg, from masturbation.

It may seem an odd thing for a church to fixate on, but they were by no means the first and generations of theologians had debated the issue before them. Kellogg was distinctly on the anti-masturbation side of the argument.

Through his support from the Church and position as director of the Battle Creek Sanatorium, he was able to implement a great deal of church policy into his treatment of patients. Even after he left the Church during the middle of his life, due to disagreements over books he’d written, he would continue to promote church doctrine through the institution.

Inventing Corn Flakes

The origins of cornflakes are, murky to put it best. The traditional story goes that Kellogg left wheat-berry dough on his counter one night and rather than throw it out, he rolled it out and was pleased with the resulting delicate ‘cornflakes’ that came out of his oven.

The story is hotly contested between numerous family members and sources. J.H Kellogg, his wife, Ella Eaton Kellogg, and his younger brother W.H Kellogg all have a differing account, particularly the latter two. While the exact facts may be unknown though, what is clear is that on April 14th 1896, a patent was issued for “Flaked Cereals and Process of Preparing Same” and J.H Kellogg was the only name listed on it.

Interestingly, this was not the only food-stuff Kellogg invented. He developed a dough from wheat, oats, and corn, baked it and crushed it into large chunks, which were then sold as ‘Granula’. Following legal issues with a similarly named cereal, he changed the name to ‘Granola’. He also applied for numerous patents regarding the production of peanut butter, one of the first to do so in the US and is credited with inventing the first ‘vegetable meat alternative’ in the US, called Nuttose, which was also made out of peanuts and resembled mutton.

The Sanatorium

His inventions regarding food were often trialled in the Battle Creek Sanatorium. At the height of his power, Kellogg was what we today might recognise as a celebrity doctor. He was everything the US at the time wanted and toured the country giving lectures on health and nutrition while continuing to sell his ‘corn flakes’ across the country.

His religious beliefs bled into his medicinal practices and the Battle Creek Sanatorium was as much health spar (for some) as it was rehabilitation facility. His strict focus on diet was meant to cure a person of practically all ills, leading to a kind of purity of the soul. Meat and certain spicy, overly flavourful foods were thought to overexcite the mind and lead to sinful behaviour and a dull diet was recommended. Kellogg intended for ‘cornflakes’ to be a staple of this diet and had the revolutionary idea of serving them as a breakfast food, something which at that point had never been done.

If his diets failed though, there were other avenues to explore. One could take a ‘light bath’, literally a bath under lights, a continuous bath for hours, days, sometimes even weeks if required. Sinusoidal current, essentially mild electro-shock therapy was thought to cure tuberculosis and lead poising, which was interesting since the machine he used had been built by Kellogg from old telephone parts and had little to no scientific basis whatsoever. He advocated enemas and developed specially designed machines that could deliver 15 quarts (14 litres) of water followed by a pint of yoghurt, half of which was to be eaten, while the other half would be delivered via second enema.

While his dull food diet was meant to keep masturbation in line, there were more extreme methods if needed. For boys, he recommended circumcision without anaesthetic, thinking the trauma it caused and several weeks of pain that would follow would curb masturbation. He had circumcised himself at the age of 37, but he was aware that that wasn’t enough for some patients. For them he recommended sewing the foreskin shut, preventing an erection. For girls he was even more brutal, recommending applying carbolic acid to the clitoris as ‘an excellent means of allaying the abnormal excitement.’ He would also recommend binding people’s hands, covering genitalia in specially designed cages or electroshock therapy, such was his hatred of masturbation.


Unfortunately, his failings weren’t limited to medical pseudo-science and religious zealotry. Kellogg was not so much a believer in eugenics as he was a devoted follower and ardent proponent of segregation.

However, he did not always live up to his backward ideals. The Battle Creek Sanatorium was desegregated and black doctors and nurses were trained there. Likewise, while his opinions on sex were so extreme that he never consummated his marriage to his wife, the couple did adopt upwards of 40 children, many of them African American or Latino.

While his personal life was more open, however, there is no denying his racism and white supremacy. His ‘biologic living’ (the name he gave to his health reforms) was centred largely around purity, not just of the soul but racial purity too. Meat and alcohol were not only bad for you, they were also ‘race poisons’. He was a staunch advocate of ‘race suicide’, a term popularised by Theodore Roosevelt that essentially sums up the fear of white America in the early twentieth century. Namely, that their racial purity would be eroded, and they would disappear into ‘inferior races’.

All this would culminate in Kellogg devoting the final 30 years of his life to eugenics. Through co-founding the Race Betterment Foundation, he was able to bring his specific brand of eugenics to the national stage. Conferences from the foundation would continue until they reached their fever pitch alongside the eugenics movement as a whole in the late 1920s. The Great Depression would soon follow though, followed by the rise of the Nazis and eugenics would decline in popularity, though far more slowly than we’d like to admit.

The influence continued, however, and many ‘mental defectives’ were forcibly sterilised in the following years. Everyone from epileptics to someone with a learning disability could be a target and horrifyingly, Michigan’s forced sterilisation law, which Kellogg himself had a hand in implementing, would not be repealed until 1974.


Ultimately, whether we should judge someone by the historical standard of their time or by ours depends largely on your perspective. It’s worth noting though, that up until about 20 years ago, the medical and ethical practices of men like J.H Kellogg were in living memory. He is not a distant historical figure and the beliefs he held are still shaping the world today.

While all his worst parts have been forgotten, the dull cereal he invented (or at least popularised) has endured. Ironically, it’s his brother W.K Kellogg who’s responsible for the taste of cornflakes today. In 1906, his brother wanted to add sugar to the cereal and market it more as standard food than a means of medical and religious purity. J.H Kellogg disagreed, so W.K Kellogg founded his own company. This is the company that would become today’s Kellogg’s Company. In 1930, he would establish the W.K. Kellogg Foundation, to help children across the world reach their full potential, perhaps going some way to undo the damage his brother had wrought.

J.H Kellogg was a man of enigmas and while he deserves to be remembered for his creations, that golden narrative should never be used to disguise the fact that he was a deeply flawed individual, whose beliefs, just like his cereal, continue to be with us to this day.

Food fan, writer and history nerd. Sometimes I combine the three and write about them here :)

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