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Excerpt from ‘The Kelloggs: The Battling Brothers of Battle Creek’ by Howard Markel

"The Kelloggs: The Battling Brothers of Battle Creek" is a new book by Howard Markel. Credit: Pantheon

Introduction: The Cain and Abel of America’s Heartland

This morning, more than 350 million people devoured a bowl of Kellogg’s Corn Flakes. Hundreds of millions more started their day with a cornucopia of crunchy, and frequently sugar-laden, flaked, popped, puffed cereals. While perusing the cereal box, peering over the bowl, and gripping a spoonful of the stuff, few of these sleepy diners know that two men created those famously crispy, golden flakes of corn. John Harvey and Will Keith Kellogg were brothers from the Michigan hamlet of Battle Creek. Together, they introduced and mass-marketed the concept of “wellness.” And in so doing, they changed how the world eats breakfast.

John and Will began their ascent into the pantheon of American history by building the Battle Creek Sanitarium, a once world famous medical center, spa, and grand hotel. For more than half a century, “the San” attracted droves of people actively pursuing health and well-being. The brothers also developed a successful medical publishing house, an exercise machine and electrical “sunbath” firm, cooking, medical, and nursing schools, an undergraduate college, and sundry other profitable health product companies. Yet throughout these endeavors and for most of their lives, the “Kellogg boys” hated each other’s guts.

From the late 19th century to World War II, John — the eldest by 8 years — was one of America’s most beloved physicians. His books were worldwide “bestsellers.” The advice he dispensed in these volumes, lectures and his magazine, “Good Health” (“the oldest health magazine in the world — established 1866”), was followed by millions of people, including some of the most prominent celebrities of the day. In 1921, his “lifesaving” research on digestion and diet was nominated for the Nobel Prize for Medicine or Physiology. Eleven years later, a 1932 poll ranked him second on a list of 25 important American luminaries and lauded him as “the noblest man” in the United States; only Herbert Hoover ranked higher (a status that would drastically change for the beleaguered president).

During this same period, Will became one of the world’s most successful industrialists. In 1906, he founded the Battle Creek Toasted Corn Flake Company, the original name of the Kellogg Company, which today enjoys more than $14 billion a year in net sales of breakfast cereals, snacks, and other manufactured foods in 180 nations around the globe. With cunning and élan, Will Kellogg revolutionized the mass production of food, invested a fortune to advertise his wares to the public, and, as a result, made an even bigger fortune. When he was done amassing his wealth, he created the charitable means to give it away to those most in need of help and support.

Behind all these triumphs the Kelloggs’ filial relations were a mess. For decades John and Will fought, litigated, and plotted against one another with a passion more akin to grand opera than the kinship of brothers. Born the sons of two early votaries of the Seventh-day Adventist Church, a denomination predicting the imminent end of the world and the Second Coming of Jesus Christ, they were unable to contain the destruction wrought by their long running quarrel. In their dotage, each brother came to regret their feud’s acidic effects even if they were never able to reach a peaceful resolution. In light of their incredible success, how could things have gone so horribly wrong between them?

Excerpted from “The Kelloggs: The Battling Brothers of Battle Creek” by Howard Markel. Copyright © 2017 by Howard Markel. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

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