Cornflake Crusade

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In the autumn of 1876 Dr. Kellogg agreed to assume the post of medical superintendent at the Western Health Reform Institute. The young superintendent was versatile, intellectually alive. He knew something of astronomy and read French and German, though he was never able to speak a foreign language with facility. He drew rather well and was an excellent mechanic, which served him well when he was engaged in his flaked food experiments. It was the personal achievement of Kellogg to make the floundering little water cure institute a showcase for the Adventist teaching that the true Christian must make his body a fit temple for the soul. Through Dr. John Harvey Kellogg, more than any other instrumentality, the Seventh-day Adventists became an important civilizing influence upon the eating habits of a rough society which in the 1870’s and i88o’s cooled its coffee in its saucer, worked its elbow like a fiddler when dining, “chawed” and spat, drank to the point of insensibility, and bolted its heavy rations in stony silence.

With the possible exception of John Alexander Dowie’s Zion City in Illinois, where steam whistles blew for public prayers, the lacto-ovo-vegetarian sanitarium under Dr. Kellogg was perhaps the most extraordinary U.S. social organism developed by a religious group in the Nineteenth Century. “God established the Battle Creek Sanitarium,” Sister White was heard to declare. But it was uncharitable as well as inaccurate to omit saying that the Doctor established something too—its success.

As soon as he could get around to it, the Doctor renamed the institution “The Medical and Surgical Sanitarium,” explaining that the accepted word “sanatorium” meant a hospital for invalid soldiers. The name usually applied to Dr. Kellogg’s establishment was the “Battle Creek” or sometimes the “Kellogg Sanitarium.” The rest-air-exercise-diet regimen worked wonders on the nervous and metabolic ailments of the overweight woman and the overworked man. They usually caught the sanitarium habit, became repeaters or old “San” hands, and remembered the San in their wills. To such patients, Kellogg gave generously of his time; he seemed able to exercise an almost mesmeric charm upon them.

The Simple Life might be had, of course, at home. But health hunters liked to flock together. What private home, after all, could offer room service, a “wheel chair social” on the front lawn, a grand march in the gym, and a string orchestra in the dining room? And so people traveled in increasing numbers to the great sanitarium which grew up around the little Advent doctor.

The expanding administrative details of the San called for a financial man, a watchdog and an expediter. In 1880 the Doctor recognized the need and hired his brother Will K., at six dollars a week plus board and room, to be a kind of steward. John Harvey was eight years older than his brother Will, who had come to know acutely the special problems of being a younger brother. The Doctor saw to it that Will’s duties became richly varied. He kept the books, made the crates for shipping the Doctor’s popular medical books, was sometimes pressed into service to catch a deranged patient who had slipped away and gotten out on the town, or to double as a hospital orderly. Will got the scrag-end of it from Johnny for more than forty years. The pattern of brotherly incompatibility began early and extended into later life when the busy Doctor liked to dictate while seated in his cabinet de nécessité with humble Will taking notes and instructions; it appeared when the Doctor would sometimes ride his Columbia chainless bicycle in wide circles in front of the Battle Creek San while faithful Will trotted at his side with his notebook. From the Doctor’s point of view it was a convenient combination of exercise, business conference, and brotherly hazing. No wonder, then, that when his turn came at the wheel of fortune, W. K. was as short as a butter cake with his older brother.

Emma Kellogg, sister of the two loving brothers, was wont to say: “The Kellogg women are amenable, but the Kellogg men can be mean .”

Many of the helpers at the San were paid-up members of the Michigan Sanitarium and Benevolent Association, which was the Sanitarium’s legal name. Equivalent to stock ownership, membership carried the right to vote at annual meetings and to elect a board of directors who in turn appointed the superintendent. Thus, the help were, in a remote sense, the employers of the imperious Kellogg. But Dr. Kellogg had the whip hand. He could fire any one of them out of hand, and jobs were not too plentiful in the era of the six-day week for the Seventh-day people who refused to work on Saturday and couldn’t get work to do on Sunday. On the whole, the Adventists labored long hours with good heart and occupied with resignation the station to which they had been called. The Doctor was perfectly willing for them to have authority so long as they did not exercise it.