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The Enigmatic Dr. Kellogg

In the late 1800s, the Battle Creek Sanitarium was unquestionably the place to be for people who needed to be cured of diseases they never had. Dr. Kellogg, who ran "The San" was convinced that virtually all illnesses originated in the bowels and that to be cured, they had to be cleansed.

It must have been quite a scene.  The little man, no more than five foot four, dressed completely in white, center stage, playing pitch and catch with a chimp.  But there was no ball in sight.  Dr. John Harvey Kellogg was tossing pieces of steak at the monkey who threw them right back.  Then the good doctor repeated the comic event, using a banana.  This time his co-star didn’t return the toss.  To the applause of the throng who had filled the great hall at the Sanitarium in Battle Creek, Michigan, the chimp happily ate the banana.  “Even a dumb animal knows what it should eat and what not” bellowed the doctor! 

Those who were unconvinced that this spectacle proved the benefits of a vegetarian diet were then urged to come up on stage for a more dramatic demonstration.  They were invited to gaze through a microscope at a piece of steak and a sample of manure.  To their horror, the meat harbored more bacteria than the excrement!  After that shocking experience, few complained about the spartan vegetable and grain-based diet that was the standard fare at “the San.”

In the late 1800s, the Battle Creek Sanitarium was unquestionably the place to be for people who needed to be cured of diseases they never had.  Kellogg and his staff catered to the rich hypochondriacs who were usually diagnosed to be suffering from “autointoxication.” Dr. Kellogg was convinced that virtually all illnesses originated in the bowels and that the “putrefaction changes which recur in the undigested residues of flesh foods” were to be blamed for disease.  To cure autointoxication, the bowels had to be cleansed.  For this Kellogg had at his disposal a variety of enema machines designed to flush the colon with impressive amounts of water in just a few seconds.  He often boasted that he himself started every day with an enema!  After water had flushed out the nether regions, came the yogurt treatment.  From both ends.  Dr. Kellogg believed that the bacteria used to make yogurt were protective against disease and “should be planted where they are most needed and may render the most effective service.”

There were other options for those who did not see the appeal of being pumped full of yogurt through their rear portals.  The San’s “mechanotherapy” department had come up with the vibratory chair.  This was a spring-loaded device that shook the patient violently to stimulate intestinal peristalsis.  Once the toxins had been dislodged in this fashion, headaches and backaches would disappear and, according to Kellogg, the body “would be filled with a healthy dose of oxygen.”  And the San’s coffers would be filled with a healthy dose of money.

The San also offered a variety of baths: cold, hot and electrified.  If this did not shock the disease out of the unfortunate victim, then Dr. Kellogg resorted to surgery, removing the offending part of the intestine. Kellogg carried out over twenty-two thousand such operations during his career with a remarkably low complication rate.  He was actually a gifted surgeon who had trained at the Bellevue Medical College in New York where his education was financed by Ellen White, the leader of the Seventh-day Adventist movement.  White had opened a “Health Reform Institute” based on hydrotherapy and vegetarianism but wanted the place to have medical legitimacy.  Kellogg came from an Adventist family and seemed like an ideal candidate to run the Institute.

At the age of twenty-four, John Harvey took up the challenge and quickly coined the name Sanitarium for the establishment where he would practice his particular blend of medicine and malarkey for sixty two years.  It was a grand place.  Thomas Edison, Henry Ford, S.S. Kresge and even President Taft were visitors. They came to exercise in special athletic diapers to the beat of the Battle Creek Sanitarium March, played by a brass band.  They came to be dunked in electrified pools and to have various parts of their anatomy assaulted with streams of water.  And they came to be told to eat what the monkey eats-simple food and not too much of it.  The doctor maintained that eating meat was sexually inflammatory and would lead to “self-abuse” which robbed the body of vigor and health.  Even regular sexual activity was to be curtailed!  Kellogg lived by his theories and often proclaimed that he was living proof that sex was not necessary for good health.  He had never consummated his marriage!  History does not record Mrs. Kellogg’s views on this matter.

John Harvey, together with his brother Will Keith, developed a number of foods to replace meat in the diet.  He came up with various nut butters, was an early proponent of soy and looked for various ways in which whole grains could be easily incorporated into meals.   The doctor was particularly fond of zwieback, a twice-baked biscuit which he claimed helped the bowels eliminate toxins.  One day, an elderly patient broke her false teeth on the hard biscuit and demanded compensation from Kellogg.  It was then that the brothers cooked up some wheat and poured the mush in-between rotating rollers to produce wheat flakes.  Corn flakes followed soon after.  John Harvey was only interested in the health properties of the new products.  Could these serve as an antidote to the passions stirred up by meat?  But Will was a businessman and was bent on commercialization.  He eventually gained control of the Kellogg company after a feud with John Harvey and turned breakfast cereals into one of the world’s greatest success stories.

Dr. John Harvey Kellogg may have been eccentric, but in some ways was ahead of his time.  Menus at the San listed nutritional composition and calorie counts. He insisted that his patients get plenty of exercise and fresh air.  Many of his ideas about vegetarianism have been corroborated by modern science and research has shown the potential benefits of consuming foods containing certain types of live bacteria.  Indeed I’ve started to supplement my breakfast of cornflakes, flaxseeds and blueberries with some live culture yogurt.  Only via the oral route.


@JoeSchwarcz

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