John Harvey Kellogg was a famous American physician. His brother Will was an ingenious businessman. Together, they invented flaked cereal and revolutionized American breakfast. But John Harvey and Will were bitter rivals, and they waged war over the very food that made them famous. So which Kellogg is the one whose name we remember today?
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Produced by Sarah Wyman and Julia Press, with Charlie Herman.
Howard Markel is the author of The Kelloggs: The Battling Brothers of Battle Creek.
Note: This transcript may contain errors.
CH: There's a city in Michigan called Battle Creek. And until the late 1800s, it wasn't known for much. There were two rivers in the middle of town — one of them was more like a creek. It was home to many Seventh Day Adventists. And in 1890s, there were also two brothers living there.
HOWARD MARKEL: The older of the two by eight years, John Harvey Kellogg, was one of the most famous physicians in the country, if not the world!
CH: Howard Markel has written a book about the Kelloggs called "The Battling Brothers of Battle Creek." That would be Will and John Harvey.
HM: John Harvey was the golden child. He, everything he did was great. He went away to New York to medical school, to the Bellevue Hospital medical college. So he was the exciting young man that everybody loved and admired.
CH: But his little brother Will… he was shy and insecure. Everyone in his family thought he was dumb.
HM: He needed glasses and didn't know that til he was 20 years old. By sitting in the back, he couldn't see the blackboard. And he was called an imbecile or a dimwit. His father didn't want to send him to school after the age of 10, because there was no point in it.
CH: If you have a brother or sister, then you've probably experienced a little sibling rivalry. Tom, that Star Wars Comic book Episode 1? It's mine.
But for John Harvey and Will, it was different. From a young age, John Harvey basically waged psychological warfare on his brother. He tattled every time Will stepped out of line. He beat him up. He verbally abused him.
HM: They fought for so long and did so much damage to one another, and those leave scars!
CH: Of course, you've heard of the Kelloggs. One of these brothers has his name spelled out in bright red cursive in grocery stores all around the world — on boxes of Rice Krispies, Mini Wheats and Corn Flakes.
From Business Insider, this is Brought to you by… Brands you know, stories you don't. I'm Charlie Herman.
Will and John Harvey Kellogg made each other's lives miserable. They bullied each other as adults. They stole from each other as business partners. And as corporate rivals, their disagreements escalated all the way to the Michigan state Supreme Court.
But the Kelloggs were also a brilliant team. John Harvey's medical theories helped improve the health of Americans. Will was an ingenious businessman who created a whole new standard for marketing and branding. Together, the Kellogg brothers changed the way we eat breakfast.
But which Kellogg is the one we remember today?
Stay with us.
CH: In the early 1890s, the Kellogg brothers worked together at a health retreat in Battle Creek called the Sanitarium. It was John Harvey's brainchild. By that point, he was an accomplished doctor who toured around the country, had written dozens of articles and books, and performed many operations.
HM: He had to be the majordomo of his Sanitarium.
CH: Again, Howard Markel. He's meticulously researched and reconstructed John Harvey and Will Kellogg's lives using old letters, scrapbooks, legal depositions, interviews, and other archival documents.
HM: John Harvey had to be, you know, in charge, he was the conductor of the band. And, uh, to a lot of his employees, he was quite difficult, especially if you displeased him. To his guests, to his patients, he was the most wonderful man on earth.
CH: Patients came to the Sanitarium from all over the country. Dr. John Harvey Kellogg ran special exercise classes. They would have sounded like this —
HEALTH LADDER EXERCISE CLASS: Arms rigid, and move them eight or ten inches down and up at each count. Ready? Begin. One two, one two, one two!
CH: Jazzercise, anyone?
HEALTH LADDER EXERCISE CLASS: One, two, one, two!
HM: He examined the patients individually. He went into the dining room and had dinner with people who were eating the Kellogg way.
CHEWING SONG: Chew, chew, chew, that is the thing to do.
CH: At every meal, Dr. Kellogg — or someone he appointed — made sure guests chewed every bite of food at least forty times before swallowing. To help count down the time, they sang the "Chewing Song." You can hear it recreated in the "The Road to Wellville," a semi-historical comedy about the Sanitarium.
CHEWING SONG: Chew, chew, chew…
HM: A lot of the people who came to the Battle Creek Sanitarium had bad stomachs or ulcers or that great American disease, constipation and indigestion, dyspepsia. And if you think of what Americans ate back then, then you know, a lot of heavily fried and fatty foods. You know, very heavy foods, there was no light diet.
CH: No kale salads.
HM: (laughs) No kale, no ruffage.
CH: Dr. John Harvey Kellogg was America's general in its war against constipation. He fed his "troops" bland meals with nuts, fruits, and dense whole grains. He encouraged them to make big lifestyle changes.
HM: And he also had a theory of something called autointoxication. I love this. That food products, meat products in particular, would stay in your gut and fester and pollute your body and give off poisons, toxins that would make you feel bloated and constipated, depressed, stupid, all sorts of things. He blamed everything on flesh-eating.
CH: Flesh-eating, and: Smoking, alcohol, caffeine. None of which were allowed at John Harvey's sanitarium. Oh and one other thing.
HM: He was very much against what he called the solitary vice of masturbation. We don't give that medical advice anymore, I can assure you…
CH: But at the time, John Harvey's ideas were not considered fringe or bizarre. They were groundbreaking. His research on diet was nominated for a Nobel Prize in Medicine or Physiology.
HM: People were just obsessed with constipation. A good bowel movement was the most important thing in American life. Nobody talks about that, but I can assure you, having spent, you know, seven or eight years reading about this stuff. It was really on the minds of a lot of people at the time, even presidents of the United States.
CH: John Harvey Kellogg treated William Howard Taft, Warren G. Harding, Calvin Coolidge, FDR…
HM: …and on and on and on who came to Battle Creek for free, of course. Thomas Edison and Henry Ford used to come, Amelia Earhart, Booker T. Washington, Eleanor Roosevelt, the comedian Eddie Cantor…
CH: They stayed on the Sanitarium's sprawling, state-of-the-art campus, where they could roam the rolling hills, visit the zoo, and attend lectures and orchestra performances.
HM: It had three different gymnasiums, it had massages of every kind under the sun and uh, water baths and an enema room, or you could get all kinds of enemas. It had all kinds of examination rooms and operating rooms and laboratories and patient probes…
CH: And while John Harvey took full credit for the Sanitarium and its success, he did not run it alone. In fact, without the help of his younger brother Will, John Harvey probably would've run it into the ground.
HM: He hired him as a 20 year old to really be what we'd call today the COO, the chief operating officer of this vast Sanitarium, which had, you know, thousands of rooms and bedsheets and maids and orderlies and the masseuses and cooks and what have you…
CH: Will Kellogg managed all of that staff. He ran publicity and marketing for the Sanitarium. And on top of that, he helped launch the Sanitarium's spinoff businesses, like a publishing company, a clothing line, and eventually, breakfast foods.
HM: And despite the fact he was incredibly good at what he did, he was constantly being derided and undercut by John Harvey Kellogg, who was grandiose and great to everyone else, but took it all out on his little brother.
CH: This was not a wholesome case of two brothers keeping it in the family and going into business together. No, this was one, incredibly powerful man taking advantage of the fact that his little brother was desperate and out of a job.
For years, John Harvey wouldn't allow Will to have his own office at the Sanitarium. He had Will follow him around with a notepad so he could jot down every one of his genius ideas. And that meant when John Harvey rode his bike around the Sanitarium campus, Will would have to run alongside him to keep up with him. Even when John Harvey paused for one of his five daily bowel movements…
HM: He would make Will come into the bathroom with him to take notes as he dictated. So he wouldn't miss a single golden thought. And that really, I think explains the relationship to a tee. Will was quiet, but he hated it. He hated it.
CH: Most weeks, Will worked seven days a week at the Sanitarium, logging hundreds of hours away from his family. And when he asked for a day off — even on Christmas — his big brother would call him lazy.
HM: I mean, he would say really harsh, mean things to him. I mean, how would you like to work seven days a week and be told you're lazy?
CH: Why do you think John was so cruel to him?
HM: Because he could. And, uh, there was a mean streak in John where he liked to dominate people and he was very good, like a lot of bullies, of knowing who he considered to be weak or at least somebody he could bully successfully.
CH: Will had five kids and a mortgage to worry about, so he kept working for his brother. And even though John Harvey would never have admitted it, Will's involvement was crucial to the success of the Sanitarium. Dr. Kellogg may have been the charmer — the draw for the rich and famous — but it was Will who made sure that the Sanitarium could pay its bills.
HM: Beginning in the 1890s, the brothers tried to make a cereal, a grain product that was easily digested.
CH: Today, we all know what cereal is. You might have even eaten a bowl this morning. But in the 1890s, what John Harvey and Will were trying to create was a brand new thing: pre-cooked, ready-to-eat, safe breakfast cereals did not exist.
At first, Will was not convinced John Harvey's latest obsession was a good use of his time. His older brother was asking him to spend hours crouched under a hand-cranked roller, catching flattened dough and chiseling off tiny flakes.
But John Harvey had this idea — that if you baked grain at an extremely high heat, its complex sugars and starches would break down and make it easier to digest.
HM: First they worked on wheat cereals and they boiled it and they baked it and they broke it up into little tiny crumbs. And that was popular, but it took a long time before they figured out how to flake cereal.
CH: The story of how the Kelloggs came up with wheat flakes is different depending on who you believe. John Harvey said the recipe was revealed to him in a dream. His wife said she helped him come up with it. And Will insisted it was a partnership between him and John.
Whatever did happen, someone…
HM: They left some dough overnight. It got a little sour, and bakers will call that tempering dough. The water content of the dough evens out. And then when you bake it at a high heat, you can break it up into flakes as opposed to little crumbs. That was a eureka moment.
CH: It was the invention of flaked cereal. The brothers debuted their creation in the Sanitarium's dining room and guests lined up for seconds and thirds. They ate the flakes with milk, cream, and yogurt. And, by all accounts, Dr. Kellogg's wheat flakes made their bowel movements like clockwork. (And who doesn't like to be regular?)
Dr. Kellogg may have been a medical prodigy, but he was bad at branding. He called the first ever breakfast cereal "granose" which, like some of the other names for foods he created — granula, nuttose, protose — did not sound particularly exciting or delicious.
It didn't matter. People loved the cereal. Will set up a makeshift factory at the Sanitarium and started selling the flakes in 10 ounce packs for 15 cents each. In its first year of production, the brothers sold over 113,000 pounds cereal, both at the Sanitarium and through mail-order.
CH: In the creation of the wheat flakes and this cereal that's being sold at the Sanitarium, in the history of food, how big of a deal is this?
HM: It was a huge deal because all of a sudden you could have an instant breakfast poured out of a box, pour milk on it, eat it. Even dad could make breakfast now.
HM: I have used that line so many times.
CH: Well, it works, keep going with it.
HM: It always gets a laugh… if you think of what a housewife had to do to make breakfast say in 1890, you know, she had to start the wood stove. If she made oatmeal, which were whole grain oats, you had to cook that for an hour or more, to make barley or rice that took time. If you fried up, things like sausages or bacon, uh, or potatoes were often used as an early morning — this took time. And suddenly you freed up a couple hours with a cheap, nutritious and tasty breakfast.
CH: At first, Will kept working on the wheat flakes dough because his brother told him to. But the notes he left behind show that he became as invested in perfecting wheat flakes as his brother. He kept track of every batch of flakes he produced and paid attention to which variables — humidity, length of baking time, temperature — produced the crispest cereal. He obsessed over the machinery, and helped come up with a special roller that flattened the dough to the perfect thickness and consistency.
In 1895, Will's brother filed a patent for the flaked cereal and the method of preparing it. But there was only one name on the application. John Harvey Kellogg.
CH: He held the patent, but does that mean he was the inventor of it?
HM: Yeah. Well he would say that.
CH: Of course he would.
HM: And that Will was his secretary and just took orders and he was just a lackey. It was his idea, it was his thought process, you know, et cetera, et cetera.
CH: John Harvey knew he had a big discovery on his hands. But to Will's great frustration, John Harvey wasn't that interested in turning wheat flakes into a big, commercial enterprise. He cared more about its health benefits than the massive amounts of money Will thought they were leaving on the table.
HM: Doctors at that time had to be very careful of putting their names on products or advertising them if they wanted to be accepted by the high class, elite doctors, not the quacks, but the people at Johns Hopkins or Harvard, the people at the AMA or the American College of Surgeons. And despite John's wackier views, he wanted dearly to be accepted by the medical profession, the established medical profession. And he did not want to be, you know, ostracized. So if you advertised products, you would get in a lot of trouble back then.
CH: By the late 1890s, the Kelloggs makeshift factory at the Sanitarium was too small to keep up with orders for Dr. John Harvey Kellogg's famous "granose." Will had to rent out a two-story building downtown. But the brothers had another problem on their hands.
One of their kitchen assistants had stolen their recipe and was selling a brand new cereal right under their noses in Battle Creek. That man was Charley — or C.W. — Post. And as far as Will could tell, John Harvey didn't plan to do anything about it.
That's after the break.
CH: We're back.
When John Harvey and Will Kellogg invented wheat flakes — an innovation in ready-to-eat, cold breakfast cereal…
HM: It changed the world!! Because breakfast is, you know, a very important meal in the day. And it changed the way we start our day collectively.
CH: And their customers weren't the only ones to take note. In the years after John Harvey received his patent for wheat flakes, people started showing up and checking out Battle Creek for any possible business ventures. By 1905, 101 new cereal companies had been established in the city. And the one posing the biggest threat to Will and John Harvey's business was Charley Post, the man who founded Post Cereals.
HM: In the 1890s, Charley Post was a broken down 36-year-old businessman. And he came to Battle Creek to try to heal. He had a bad stomach, couldn't even afford to stay at the Sanitarium, it was too expensive. So he stayed at one of the boarding houses. He actually worked in the kitchen to try to pay his way. And there he learned several of the recipes.
CH: Post ripped off a few of John Harvey and Will's creations before he ever got to their flaked cereal. But the one that really got the brothers' attention was a cereal called "Grape Nuts." It was basically the same as one that the Kelloggs had created, but with some sweetener added — something John Harvey would never have done. All told, by 1900, Post was making around 3 million dollars a year, over $90 million in today's money.
HM: Will went nuts. Will hated it. You know, 'We're giving away money. These are our products. We ought to make our own and mass advertise.' He knew this in the early 1900s. They had many battles over this. And John said, 'You know I can't advertise.' And Will said, 'Well, I'll advertise. We'll use my name.' But 'no, we can't do that.' And he held him back. And so, uh, Kellogg's Corn Flakes are the sanitized Corn Flakes that were made out of the Sanitarium are selling hundreds of thousands of boxes a year, while C.W. Post right down the road was selling millions and millions of boxes a year.
CH: While John Harvey took the high road, insisting he didn't care what Post did as long as his cereals were helping improve people's digestion, Will, on the other hand, could not let it go.
HM: Will hated Post and, Post once called Will Kellogg a "dirty dog" and Will Kellogg said, 'Well, you know what dirty dogs do to a post?' And I don't know if he actually said that or he had someone write that line, but it's pretty good. No, he hated him. And they both hated each other.
But imagine inventing it or co inventing it and seeing another guy steal it and make millions of dollars off of it. I mean, that's not a good feeling.
CH: No, it's like 'I could do that!'
HM: I mean, literally!
CH: Literally, I did do that!
HM: He did do that. Now, John Harvey had his own show going, so he was fine. He had adulation, he had success, but Will, who is now in his forties and was still a lackey, saw this as his great, great opportunity.
CH: In the early 1900s, Will started experimenting with a new kind of cereal. He played with different ingredients, like salt and sugar — which John Harvey have would never have let him get away with on his watch. Will tried different baking temperatures. And he abandoned his brother's wheat to produce a masterpiece:
HM: Golden flakes Of corn!
CH: Corn Flakes were Will's breakthrough. He knew they tasted good — better than wheat flakes. And he knew his brother would never agree to market them. So, after 25 years of working for his brother, Will made one of the biggest decisions of his life.
In 1905, he offered to buy his brother's cereal business, including the rights to manufacture and sell his brand new Corn Flakes. John Harvey was in debt, and wasn't interested in selling and marketing his cereals himself … so he said yes.
HM: And at 46, Will Kellogg began his Battle Creek Toasted Corn Flake Company, which we now know as the international Kellogg's.
CH: Will Kellogg could finally get himself an office. He'd be the boss of his own business. And he was ready to make some money. He asked all his employees to sign nondisclosure agreements, and he stationed a guard outside his factory's front door to prevent the Charley Posts of the world from sneaking in and stealing his ideas. Because it turns out, Will Kellogg's knowledge of how to effectively run a business this big — that was invaluable.
HM: He understood operations. He understood machinery. He already knew about accounting methods and, and, and inventory methods. And then he understood and studied how grocery stores worked.
CH: Will knew he had to make his brand a household name with American mothers — who did most of the shopping at the time — so he spent millions of dollars advertising in major magazines, newspapers, and ladies' journals. One campaign told women to go to the grocery store, and…
HM: 'Wink at your grocer and you'll get a free box of cereal,' which in 1910 is pretty racy stuff.
CH: Eventually, Will started working with the famous Leo Burnett advertising agency in Chicago, which worked on mascots for his kid-friendly cereals
FROSTED FLAKES: Kellogg's Sugar Frosted Flakes are grrrreat!
HM: Tony the tiger, and…
RICE KRISPIES: We're Snap, Crackle, and Pop! So rise and shine, Rice Krispie time.
HM: I'll bet you don't know the name of the rooster on a box of Corn Flakes…
CORNELIUS: Good morning, boss!
HM: Cooooornelius! It was Cornelius!
CORNELIUS: Corn Flakes!
CH: How important was advertising?
HM: It was essential. It took a tiny little company in Battle Creek into everybody's home, all around the country, and later the world.
CH: Growing up in Oakland, California, even I had heard of Battle Creek. I knew it was where all these cereal companies were based because I saw it on the side of the boxes I read while eating my Fruit Loops. I couldn't understand why. Now, I do.
HM: So it's interesting for a very insecure, beaten down 46 year old man, most people don't embark on a successful career at that age. He had that feeling. Why does anybody who's a success become a success? Well, hard work talent, but also you have to have a feeling deep in your gut, I can do this. And I think that's what he felt.
CH: As Will's cereal business grew — thanks in part to Cornelius and Snap, Crackle and Pop — he did something that his brother decided was unforgivable. He put the name "Kellogg" on his cereal boxes, and he started signing his work. On every box, in big swoopy red cursive: W.K. Kellogg.
John Harvey Kellogg just lost it.
HM: He hated it. He hated the fact that well was doing well. He hated the fact that it was his invention. He hated the fact that he was using the name Kellogg, and their signatures actually were even somewhat similar. If you look at them, uh, they look a lot alike. And so he just went nuts. So he started making his own cereal, a pretty bad cereal, rice flakes cereal, and it's calling it Kellogg's.
CH: After the break, this little cereal town wasn't big enough for two Kelloggs….stay with us
CH: We're back.
In 1908, Will Kellogg was spending millions of dollars a year marketing his Kellogg's Corn Flakes, under the name "The Kellogg Toasted Corn Flake Company," when his older brother released a worse product with a really similar name: "Kellogg's Food Company." I mean, quick, pop quiz: can you remember whose company was called what? I can't. And I have a script in front of me.
So, Will went to confront the brother who'd bullied him since childhood.
HM: Will said, 'Please stop this.' He went to his house. He asked him as a brother and John was a real squirrely guy. You know, he was very hard to nail down. It was real hard to do business with.
CH: He said 'Suuuure I'll stop' and then in another conversation would threaten to copyright the name "Kellogg's" himself. John told Will he could keep using the family name, if he paid him half a million dollars worth of stock in his company.
HM: Anyway, by 1910, 1911 Will had had it. And he asked a judge to put an injunction against John Harvey Kellogg for making a Kellogg's branded cereal.
CH: The Kellogg brothers were going to court. At stake was millions of dollars, both men's reputations, and the name they shared. Who owned the name "Kellogg"? Was it John Harvey, the world famous doctor, or Will, his kid brother? The corn flake king.
HM: I mean, it was, you know, it was epic. I mean, you had these two brothers fighting, and fighting in the press… Oh, it was so ugly. And, you know, I was really hoping Netflix would buy my book because it'd be like such a great series.
CH: Actually, we agreed. So, we hired actors to play the roles of John Harvey, Will, and the judge.
JUDGE: Order in my court!
CH: The case went to trial in 1910. John Harvey was the heavy favorite. But the doctor was a bad witness.
HM: First of all, he was very arrogant.
JOHN HARVEY KELLOGG: There is no town of any size in the United States that has not sent people to the Sanitarium.
HM: And he's very invested in being the Dr. John Harvey Kellogg, the author of 60 books, translated into, you know, hundreds of languages, international lecture and expert and so on.
JHK: In fact from all parts of the world, Australia, New Zealand, South Africa, all parts of England and South America.
HM: And he's also, he doesn't like to be contradicted by a lawyer. He's a real setup for a smart lawyer to say things to get angry…
CH: The kind of witness that a cross-examining attorney loves.
HM: The kind of witness that lawyers dread if they're representing them because they just talk too much.
CH: John Harvey was all over the place on the witness stand. He went from defensive and sarcastic to… kind of deeply reflective about his own personality and flaws.
JHK: Strong-willed, pugnacious, controversial, and skeptical… I keep these unpleasant traits under reasonable control, but when I get worn out they become conspicuous and I appear to very poor advantage.
CH: Right. But if you are doing a cross examination of him, you love him.
HM: You love him.
JHK: Will K. Kellogg did it while in my employ and I did it because he worked for me and he asked my consent to do it and I agreed…
CH: Will's turn on the stand was much less theatrical.
HM: Will was, you know, a very, yes/no kind of guy.
WILL KELLOGG: I couldn't state. I don't know.
HM: And just as, you know, Muhammad Ali did the rope a dope, he'd be very good when an opposing lawyer was asking questions. 'Well, I, I don't recall that' or 'That may have happened'…
WK: I think I did but I am not positive, I couldn't say. I am unable to state the time. It was so long ago.
HM: And Will what, frankly, wasn't a above lying on the stand. You know, you know, 'Do you think your brother is famous for his work in nutrition?' 'Ehhhh, I'm not quite sure about that.' Well, of course you are! C'mon!
WK: That even to this day I didn't know that Dr. Kellogg had any reputation as a dietitian or as an innovator in food products, health foods, and the improvement of diet…
CH: I mean, what, what did that tell you about Will's character?
HM: Well, Will loved to win. And as he became more and more successful, winning was more important than almost anything.
CH: In 1911, the brothers reached an out of court settlement. Will owned the "Kellogg's" trademark. But he would still let his brother call his business the "Kellogg Food Company," but only as long as John Harvey kept the name off of his cereal boxes. Will wanted to make sure that none of his customers were buying the wrong Kellogg's by accident.
HM: And that didn't sit well with, uh, John Harvey Kellogg. Now they reached a detente for awhile, but then they kept fighting again for, for the next 10 years or so.
CH: When the national press reported on what happened next, they called it the "battle of the bran." Still obsessed with his quest to engineer the perfect bowel movement, John Harvey had started experimenting with a product he called "sterilized bran."
HM: And it would move your bowels even better than Corn Flakes or wheat flakes, which exactly what it does.
CH: Only this time, John Harvey didn't sit on his genius idea. He started calling the cereal "Kellogg's Sterilized Bran," and he bought ads in Good Housekeeping and Ladies' Home Journal. By 1916, he had sold more than 600,000 boxes.
HM: And, uh, Will too liked a good bowel movement. He didn't talk about it as much…
CH: And Will also liked beating his brother in the cereal business. So…
HM: Will made bran cereal that was basically a rip off of John Harvey Kellogg's bran cereals. You can imagine, the king of digestion, you know, the medical doyenne of bowel movements who created basically a palatable laxative, and then it was stolen. So uh, yeah. He pulled a C.W. Post basically.
CH: John Harvey filed a restraining order against his brother's company. One thing led to another, and in 1917, they were back in court. And again, it came down to the same question: Who is "Kellogg"?
HM: And one of the great exhibits by the way, that Will used to show that he was the real Kellogg were the, uh, every ad he ever used and the budgets that it cost and the subscription rates of all the periodicals, he advertised this to show the millions and millions of people who saw his name associated with his product and the millions and millions of dollars he spent to do so.
CH: The judge was Walter North, a widely respected man who was known for being fair. And in November of 1917, he looked down on the brothers from his bench, peered over his spectacles, and read his verdict.
JUDGE NORTH: I find that the facts and circumstances established by the proofs in this case are such as entitles the defendants to relief…
CH: He dismissed every single one of John Harvey's complaints. And he said Will was entitled to all of the money John Harvey had made off of his cereal in the last ten years. It was a total victory for Will.
HM: He said that, you know, 'John, you're basically ripping off his idea. He's advertised to a fairly well, you can sell products under any other name. You don't have to, you know, sell your product with a similar signature right next to his.' But the reality is, when people see the name Kellogg's today, you think of Kellogg's Corn Flakes. And so he won. Will won.
CH: John Harvey appealed the case to the Michigan Supreme Court. They ruled unanimously, 8 – 0 in Will's favor. John also had to pay all of Will's legal bills, more than 2 and a half million dollars in today's money.
CH: By this point, has the younger brother surpassed his famous older brother in importance?
HM: Yes! Absolutely. And it never stopped, it never stopped, because Kellogg's became more and more powerful and more successful.
CH: This victory did not change the fact that Will had spent so much of his life feeling beaten down — his life-long struggles with his brother, with establishing his own business — that even after he'd finally won, the damage was done.
HM: He couldn't relate well to his children. He had very few friends. So what does it say about his character? He was an extremely lonely man, almost of the Charles Foster Kane, Citizen Kane, where he could not relate to anybody cause of money and success.
CH: Will became bitter, passive-aggressive, paranoid, and hostile. His marriages fell apart. Two of his sons broke off contact with him. After he died at the age of 91 years old, one of his grandsons described it as a relief. Like "a heavy weight had been lifted."
HM: So he got the ultimate revenge, but he couldn't enjoy it. And that to me is one of the great tragedies of the brothers Kellogg is that they could never figure out how important each was to the other. And Will who I found a very compelling figure, I liked writing about him, was very sad man, to be that successful and that sad and lonely is really, you know, writers love to write about, uh, conflict. And there was conflict between the brothers, but there was great internal conflict in will. It was never comfortable.
CH: For his part, John Harvey Kellogg became more and more eccentric as he grew older. He spent time in Florida, where guests at his home said he would sometimes walk around in his underwear to show off what great shape he was in. Will was so bothered by this that he once even considered filing a lawsuit forcing his brother to dress more appropriately. And then, there was John Harvey's abiding interest in his own, well, I'll let Dr. Markel explain.
HM: He had a healthy gut and that, and he even liked to offer his, uh, bowel movements. He would put them in a container and offered them to others to smell because he was so healthy and ate so well, they didn't smell bad. I don't know if that's true or not. I mean, I know he did it…
CH: People may have been polite and not actually told him that his…
HM: Oh, that is grrrreat, Dr. Kellogg!
CH That's grrrrreat!
HM: That's great! That's where that came from…
CH: There's another reason that might account for John Harvey's slide into obscurity. If Will hadn't already torn the title of "most respected Kellogg" out of his hands, John might have taken himself out of the running. Like other scientists of his time, John Harvey became a vocal proponent of eugenics which made the racist arguments that some people — usually white people — were born with superior genes and moral qualities.
After the court case, John Harvey and Will Kellogg stopped talking to each other for a while. When they did meet, Will insisted upon having a third party in the room, to witness what was said. But more than twenty years after the court handed Will his victory, John gave him something Will probably wanted even more. John wrote him an emotional letter — a mea culpa — from a man who was clearly full of regret.
HM: He knew the end was coming. And the thing about John, as difficult as he could be, he was at heart, a good Christian man. And I think he wanted to make amends at that point of his life. And it was basically a letter saying, 'I was wrong and you were right.'
JHK LETTER: Your better balanced judgment has doubtless saved you from a vast number of mistakes of the sort I have made.
HM: And you have done remarkably well because of your talent, your business sense and all this stuff.
JHK LETTER: And allowed you to achieve magnificent successes for which generations to come will owe you gratitude…
CH: But Will did not get the letter. Because John Harvey's secretary never sent it to him.
HM: His secretary filed it. She didn't want it to be sent because it made John Harvey look weak or, you know, whatever.
JHK LETTER: I earnestly desire to make amends for any wrong or injustice of any sort I have done to you and will be glad if you will give me a very definite and frank expression of anything I have said or done which you feel should be justly designated unbrotherly or otherwise open to criticism.
CH: In 1942, a little over a year after John Harvey's secretary filed away the letter, the brothers met one last time. John Harvey didn't know why Will hadn't responded to his apology. And Will didn't know that the letter existed. He didn't know that John Harvey was sorry.
They two met because the Sanitarium was falling apart. It was deeply in debt, and even though John Harvey was no longer in charge, he was doing everything he could to rescue the last remnants of his legacy. Including asking his brother for help.
HM: So John was trying to get money to keep the Sanitarium on an even keel while Will behind the scenes was doing everything he could to get it bankrupt and say bad things about it.
CH: So at this very moment that John has written a letter to try and reconcile, his brother behind the scenes is actually trying to thwart him and undermine him.
HM: Undermine him and bury his legacy. Cause the one thing that John had that would make his box of Corn Flakes was the San. And they fought like cats and dogs. It was a several hour meeting. It was, it was very contentious. And then they never spoke again. And then John Harvey died a few months later.
CH: In 1948, someone was going through John Harvey's old filing cabinet when they found the sealed envelope addressed to Will.
HM: And so Will didn't get it for seven years later, when his brother was long gone.
CH: How did Will respond when he got that letter seven years later?
HM: Well, that too is sad to me, that's another Citizen Kane-like moment. He was already blind from terrible glaucoma. So the letter had to be read to him. Uh, there were tears and silence stoicism, but it must, we don't know, but it must have hurt him to the core.
JHK LETTER: I hope that this note may find you more comfortable and that you have many years left to promote the splendid enterprises that have given the name you bear a place among the notable ones of our time.
HM: You know, he kept a picture in his wallet of John Harvey's grave. It's a tiny little headstone, but he kept it in his wallet. And he gave copies of that picture to other people. You know, as much as they disliked each other, I think they loved each other. Uh, they were brothers, and each made the other better. There would not have been a great Battle Creek Sanitarium and all the medical success that John Harvey Kellogg had if his little brother hadn't been running everything like a Swiss watch. And they needed each other and complemented each other, but they didn't know it. One would never have become successful without the other. Their success is just unmeasurable by most people's lives.
Most of us, our names are not going to be remembered. At all. Yet, the Kellogg family from this tiny town in the middle of the state of Michigan, we're still talking about them. That is against all the odds.
CH: Howard Markel is a professor of the history of medicine at the University of Michigan, and the author of "The Kelloggs: The Battling Brothers of Battle Creek."
CH: This episode was produced by Sarah Wyman and Julia Press, with me, Charlie Herman.
Did you grow up eating Kellogg's cereal. I was a huge fan of Froot Loops and one from General Mills called "Booberry." Do you remember that one? Let us know in our Facebook group what you ate. Just search "Brought to you by podcast." Or, as always, you can find us on twitter or send us an email at [email protected]
Special thanks this week to Ben Roseberry, Christopher Gurr, Tim Wetzel, and Steve Wyman for re-enacting that court case. Thanks also to Claire Banderas and Tyler Murphy. And thanks again to Howard Markel for taking the time to talk with us — he's one of the doctors who helped coin the term "flatten the curve" and has been helping to fight the coronavirus pandemic. And yet…we called him to talk about Kelloggs.
Sound design is by Bill Moss. Music is from Audio Network. John DeLore and Casey Holford composed our theme.
Our editor is Micaela Blei. Dan Bobkoff is the podfather. Sarah Wyman is our executive producer.
Brought to you by… is a production of Insider Audio.
CH: Howard, thank you very much.
HM: Thank you, Charlie. And I hope you had a good bowel movement today too.
CH: Not yet!
HM: Well. May you always be regular!
CH: (laughs) May the regularity be with you.
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