*If the article title offends, I apologize; I could not resist.

The late 1800s witnessed a wave of revolutionary medical advances: modern microbiology, the adoption of vaccines for a variety of diseases, and the importance of personal hygiene for public health, among others. Tucked neatly inside that renaissance were a variety of health “reformers” that promoted questionable and downright kooky therapeutic remedies for illness, and few were more successful or fanatical than John Harvey Kellogg and his Battle Creek Sanitarium.

John Harvey Kellogg and his brother Will Kellogg almost single-handedly created the breakfast cereal market, first with a crushed mixture of cereals and grains he dubbed “granola” and then with a corn-based dough that was flattened, baked, and crumbled. The brothers patented the technique, calling the product “Granose” and subsequently created a variety of products, including biscuits and cereals. Granose’s success and sales both created and dominated the breakfast cereal market.

A feud quickly developed between the brothers once Will suggested they add a small amount of sugar to the dough for taste. John Kellogg subscribed heavily to the Social Hygiene Movement, which discouraged sexuality and, particularly, masturbation. He believed his bland flaked cereal suppressed these urges for the betterment of public health. Adding sugar would undo that. Will had a more pragmatic approach; healthy or not, the cereal just didn’t taste very good. The two could not reconcile and ultimately split their product and process in two. Will’s company, Kellogg’s Toasted Corn Flakes, would become the iconic cereal brand.

While Will remained chiefly concerned with business, John Kellogg’s passions focused on the endorsement and improvement of public health. In an era rife with typhus, cholera, smallpox, and a variety of devastating infectious disease, his largesse at least was admirable. Like many health reformers of his day, the methods he used at the Battle Creek Sanitarium straddled the fence between science and pseudoscience. Kellogg knew just science to be dangerous.


The methods of the “San” combined modern medicine, holistic quackery, and theories gleaned from Kellogg’s days as a Seventh-Day Adventist. The efficacy of these techniques are controversial, but the popularity of the “Sans” was not. It quickly became the IN place to rest, relax, and recuperate for high society of the late 1800s and early 1900s. Regular patrons included Amelia Earhart, Warren G. Harding, actor Johnny Weissmuller, beauty mogul Madam C.J. Walker, and Henry Ford, among many others. The success of the sanitarium grew rapidly, built on the popularity of Kellogg’s numerous diatribes on public health, including his 1879 book ‘Plain Facts for Young and Old’ (the entire book is free and available HERE).

John Kellogg: Enema Enthusiast

Although one of the first public figures to subscribe to the modern germ theory, John Kellogg studied and then obsessed over the lower bowels and excrement, which he viewed as a kind of window into whole-body health. An entire floor of every building on the Sanitarium campus, usually its basement, were earmarked solely for lower gastrointestinal studies and treatment (i.e. enemas).

Like many of his health theories, Kellogg’s focus on the lower bowels was neither entirely right nor entirely wrong. The presence of certain bacteria in fecal matter can indicate a patient’s current state of health. True to form, though, Kellogg didn’t just utilize this treatment, but celebrated it, subjecting patients to several, sometimes daily, enemas. Eventually he developed an enema machine, which could inject up to 15 gallons of water (!!!) in just seconds.

John Kellogg prescribed a serving of yogurt after each enema, which he believed contained a healthy bacterial culture that would thrive in the gastrointestinal system. Patients would eat half of the yogurt, then receive the other half in an enema, thus (carefully and slowly) walking away from treatment with a “clean” GI tract, head-to-toe. Or at least head to, well, anus. While still largely unsupported by sufficient medical evidence, the trend of probiotics drew their inspiration from Kellogg’s beliefs.

*I don’t want to detail the problems with his overuse of enemas, but any GI doctor will tell you Kellogg’s applications were too often, too much, and too fast…and certainly too enthusiastic. 

Half-Baked But Healthy 

The Battle Creek Sanitarium implemented a variety of strategies to improve patients’ health, independent of the enema parade. Individuals adhered to a strict dietary regime, tailored to their age, weight, and health status, typically low in fat and protein and stressing cereals, grains, fiber, and nuts. All patients followed daily programs involving fresh air and exercise, also a popular offshoot of the social hygiene movement.

Kellogg was among the first prominent health figures to endorse hydrotherapy, with patient receiving a variety of treatments, including cold water bathes, Nauheim bathes (in which CO2 “bubbles” through the water), douches, and even hydroelectric bathes. Kellogg wasn’t entirely wrong about these, and hydrotherapy remains a popular and sometimes effective treatments for a variety of ailments even today.


Kellogg’s Asexual Healing

Chief among John Kellogg’s crusades was the pursuit of a celibate life, completely and utterly free of sexual urges. This was not only a personal and religious belief of his, but a popular notion in American culture of his era, and the backbone of the social hygiene movement. Any sexual activity, from masturbation to consensual sex between married adults, was seen not only as evil but a cradle of disease.

He endorsed methods of preventing male masturbation by enclosing the male genitalia with small, sharpened spikes; he believed applications of carbolic acid could efficiently prevent female masturbation. These misguided and entirely baseless beliefs were so endemic to American culture at the time that their echoes are still felt today (for example, The Walking Dead viewers can witness a zombie’s skull get crushed like on overripe melon in a car door, but censors quickly axe any graphic depictions of a bare butt. Folks, that’s just damn weird).

Oh, and John Kellogg also endorsed eugenics and racial segregation


It wasn’t changes in health trends that ended the Battle Creek Sanitarium’s reign as a center of health and hygiene, it was a disaster on Wall Street. When the market crashed in 1929, the Sanitarium become a luxury few people could afford; those that could guarded their public image against such a garish display of wealth. Still, under Kellogg’s guidance, the Sanitarium limped on until 1941, when it was sold to the US military and became the Percy Jones Army Hospital. John Kellogg died in 1943 at the age of 91.

Today, the remaining campus buildings—21 buildings on 24 acres—exist as a federal complex, with only the main building spared from significant modernization. Recognized for its role as an institution of public health and the array of American figures involved with the Battle Creek Sanitarium—including John Harvey Kellogg himself—the main building was added to the National Registry of Historic Places in 1976.


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Want to Know More? 

The Museum of Quackery features a short article on John Kellogg, but graciously supplemented it with a wealth of links concerning the “good” doctor. An Internet rabbit hole if there ever was one.

I recommend this article from Doctor’s Review, an online journal for Canadian medical practitioners, not only because it contains a reliable history of enema use, but also because of its admirable nuance of pun usage, entirely unavoidable given the subject. Entitled “Royal Flush.”