"The Kelloggs"

“This morning more than 350 million people devoured a bowl of Kellogg’s Corn Flakes,” is the opening sentence of this subtly amusing, quirky cultural history about John Harvey and William Keith Kellogg. The book's author, Dr. Howard Markel, chronicles the contentious relationship between these two brothers.

Markel tells the stories of these giants of American commerce and medicine and of the institutions they founded, John’s sanitarium and Will’s cereal factory. Their father, an influential supporter of the Seventh-day Adventist church, was a leader in the new town of Battle Creek, Michigan.

John was born in 1852 and became an intellect who, with the church’s help, earned his medical degree at New York’s Bellevue Hospital Medical College. In 1876, he returned to Battle Creek and, with younger brother Will’s help, began reviving the church’s failing Western Health Reform Institute.

Many patients suffered from “dyspepsia,” a combination of gas, diarrhea, heartburn and stomachache. The Kellogg brothers theorized that an easily digestible corn cereal would relieve this ailment. Mary Todd Lincoln, Amelia Earhart, George Bernard Shaw, William Taft and Franklin Delano Roosevelt were among their many high profile, grateful patients over the next 50 years. Dr. Kellogg’s sanitarium became world renowned and his practice provided him with a hefty income.

Both brothers claimed to have invented the healthy new fare, but so did copycat entrepreneurs like C. W. Post who moved to Battle Creek to produce a competing cereal, shredded wheat. Because Dr. Kellogg felt it was unprofessional to advertise, Post’s cereal soon outsold Kellogg’s cornflakes.

Will, meanwhile, ran the cornflakes factory and became increasingly impatient about the missed opportunity to improve sales by touting the beneficial qualities of corn flakes. After 25 years of working as John’s underling, Will said “enough” and the Kellogg brothers’ unequal fortunes gradually reversed.

The younger brother reached a deal with John, left the sanitarium and established a corporation of his own. Corn flakes soon became a global success. John sued his brother over branding rights and Will countersued. Litigation extended for more than 15 years; the final judgment was in Will‘s favor. Will became one of the wealthiest men in the United States. John gradually lost his riches, including in 1920, the sanitarium.

Markel notes that, in spite of the brothers loathing each other, “Relegating the Kellogg brothers’ long, internecine warfare as a nasty sibling rivalry trivializes and obscures their epic drive, ambition and genius.” John, the great promoter of health and his wife Ella helped to raise 42 children of different races. Will, the gifted executive, left an 8 billion dollar foundation to help people in need.

Howard Markel, M. D., PH.D., is the George E. Wantz Distinguished Professor of the History of Medicine at the University of Michigan. His books include “Quarantine,” “When Germs Travel,” and “An Anatomy of Addiction.” Pantheon is the publisher of this 490-page book.