Battle Creek Sanitarium, America’s most popular medical spa of the early 20th century, may be best known as the birthplace of the corn flake. But some might say that the biggest flake to come out of Battle Creek was the man in charge: John Harvey Kellogg, the dapper doctor who typically dressed in a white suit and white shoes, often with a white cockatoo perched on his shoulder.
Since his death in 1943, Kellogg has gained a reputation as something of a comical quack—due, in part, to his portrayal in T. Coraghessan Boyle’s 1993 novel The Road to Wellville and the movie of the same name, with Anthony Hopkins as the good doctor. In reality, Kellogg was a more complicated figure: a widely respected physician and popular wellness guru who had many forward-thinking treatment ideas—and many that now appear downright wacky.
As one of the nation's first proponents of integral medicine, he saw himself as a health reformer fighting to improve body, mind and soul through a program he called “biologic living.” His messianic zeal for wellness stemmed largely from his Seventh-day Adventist faith; groomed by the faith’s founders to be a church leader from a young age, Kellogg went on to earn his medical degree with their support. But while he published in respected medical journals, lectured at prestigious universities and kept up with medical research that interested him, his treatments remained largely grounded in his religion’s tenets of dietary and sexual abstinence—much of which had come to the founder in visions and prophesies.
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Under the supervision of Dr. Kellogg and his brother Will, the Battle Creek Sanitarium grew from the church’s small “health reform institute” into a national holistic wellness destination—a combination medical center, spa and grand hotel. Dr. Kellogg also lectured, wrote books and edited a magazine, becoming a celebrity doctor whose admirers and patients included several U.S. presidents, Thomas Edison, Henry Ford, Amelia Earhart, Sojourner Truth and many others. Also among his patients was Ida Tarbell, the foremost investigative reporter of her day and a woman unlikely to let a charlatan go unexposed, let alone be personally treated by one.
Kellogg practiced much of what he preached—he was an avid vegetarian and reportedly celibate in his own four-decade marriage. And he seemed willing to try anything to cure his patients’ ills, experimenting with countless treatments and inventing dozens of his own. Some of his ideas, particularly on nutrition and exercise, have proved remarkably prescient; others now seem goofy or even barbaric. Here are some of the latter. (Warning: This is going to get pretty gross.)
1. Chewing, chewing…and more chewing
Kellogg was a disciple of Horace Fletcher, a dubious health expert who advised people to chew each bite of food at least 40 times before swallowing. Kellogg often led diners at his sanitarium in a rousing rendition of the “Chewing Song,” according to medical historian Howard Markel, in his 2017 book The Kelloggs: The Battling Brothers of Battle Creek. Sample chorus: “Chew, chew, chew, that is the thing to do.”
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2. Electric light baths
Like other physicians of his day, Kellogg experimented with the therapeutic effects of artificial light. Some of that work, such as using light to treat depression, became an accepted practice. Kellogg, however, promoted light therapy as an almost universal cure-all and built what he called the world’s first “electric light bath”—basically a wooden cabinet lined with light bulbs, in which the patient could either sit or lie down. Kellogg prescribed light treatments for an astonishing range of aliments, including diabetes, insomnia, gangrene, syphilis—and even writer’s cramp.
3. Sinusoidal current
Kellogg’s interest in the therapeutic powers of electricity didn’t end with light baths. With a device he cobbled together from telephone parts, he began to administer mild doses of electrical current directly to his patients’ skin. Kellogg claimed these “sinusoidal current” treatments were painless and wrote that he’d tested them in “many thousands of therapeutic applications.” While electrical stimulation is used to this day for certain medical purposes, the ever-optimistic Kellogg maintained that it could treat lead poisoning, tuberculosis, obesity and, when applied directly to the patient’s eyeballs, a variety of vision disorders.
4. The continuous tub bath
In a 1907 ad in Good Housekeeping magazine, the Battle Creek Sanitarium boasted of offering 46 different kinds of baths. Some, like foot baths and sponge baths, were relatively conventional. But there were also options like the “continuous bath,” which was much like a regular tub bath, except that it could last, Kellogg wrote, “for many hours, days, weeks, or months, as the case may require.” (Apparently, the patient was allowed to get out occasionally to use the toilet.) Kellogg advocated continuous baths as a treatment for skin diseases, chronic diarrhea and a host of mental maladies, including delirium, hysteria and mania.
5. Fifteen-quart enemas
As if the bath-crazed sanitarium’s water bills weren’t already high enough, Kellogg’s patients were constantly taking enemas to cleanse their colons. “More people need washing out than any other remedy,” he wrote. But Kellogg went beyond typical enemas, which might involve a pint or two of liquid; his were administered by special machines that, according to Markel, were capable of pumping 15 quarts of water per minute into the patient’s bowels. He was also an advocate of yogurt enemas.
6. The vibrating chair
Kellogg devised countless contraptions for exercise and other purposes. President Calvin Coolidge had one of the doctor’s mechanical horses in the White House, and by some accounts, there was another in the Titanic’s first-class gym. But Kellogg also had his mechanical misfires, one of which was the vibrating chair. Unlike today’s well-padded vibrating recliners, Kellogg’s version consisted of a plain wooden chair that shook up to 60 times a second, with the apparent goal of stimulating the bowels. Kellogg’s other marvels included both beating and slapping machines, which gave patients the choice of being pounded or flogged, in order to stimulate their circulation.
7. Masturbation cures
A zealous lifelong foe of what he called “the solitary vice” and the “vile practice,” Kellogg wrote that masturbation led to poor digestion, memory loss, impaired vision, heart disease, epilepsy and insanity—to name just a few insidious side effects. To break young boys of the habit, Kellogg suggested procedures that ranged from ridiculous to barbaric, including tying their hands, bandaging the offending organ or putting a cage over it. If that didn’t work, he recommended circumcision without anesthetic—"as the brief pain attending the operation will have a salutary effect upon the mind,” he wrote in his book, Plain Facts for Old and Young. Kellogg had an even more gruesome set of treatments for girls, including the application of pure carbolic acid to the clitoris or, in more extreme cases, surgical removal.
Few of these treatments are practiced today—thankfully, in most cases. As to Dr. Kellogg, he lived to the then-uncommon age of 91, suggesting he knew a thing or two about staying healthy.
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