Will Keith Kellogg invented corn flakes, and with them he stoked America’s appetite for the convenience of dry breakfast cereal. His cereal business became wildly successful. And from its profits, Kellogg poured a fortune into improving health care and education for children.
Born in 1860, Kellogg was one of 14 children of a strict Seventh-day Adventist family. They observed the Sabbath on Saturday, and abstained entirely from alcohol, tobacco, coffee, tea, and meat. Schooling for W. K. (as he was called throughout his adult career) ended at age 13, when he was apprenticed to his father’s broom-making business. It was a childhood filled with work and responsibility. “As a boy,” he later recalled, “I never learned to play.”
W. K. worked for his father until he was 16 years old, at which time he was hired by his older brother, John. In 1876, the newly minted Dr. John Kellogg was named superintendent of the Battle Creek Sanitarium in Battle Creek, Michigan. He hired W. K., eight years his junior, as a bookkeeper. Combining elements of the Seventh-day Adventist diet with insights from late 19th century medicine, the sanitarium was a sort of live-in spa where visitors could eat healthily, exercise regularly, and rest soundly. For the next 30 years, it was where the brothers worked side by side.
It was not an easy relationship. John required W. K. to run beside him while he bicycled around the sanitarium, for example, and to take dictation while he used the toilet. John was a relentless self-promoter, who cajoled the great and the good to come to the sanitarium (a word he coined). Fascinated by holistic medicine, electrotherapy, and hydrotherapy, John became obsessed with digestion, administering frequent enemas of water (to flush the system) and yogurt (to supply healthy bacteria). He was also a rigid opponent of onanism, and prescribed a bland diet to ward off the temptations he associated with spicy and savory foods.
Food was a central concern at the sanitarium. Like many Seventh-day Adventists, the Kelloggs relied on a low-fat and low-protein diet that centered on fiber, whole grains, and nuts. In the mid-1890s, John told W. K. to develop a grain product more easily digestible than bread. W. K. started tinkering—boiling wheat, spreading the mixture on grinding rollers, and toasting it. Later he started using corn, and added salt and sugar. The flaked corn was served with cold milk and fruit, a far cry from the hot porridge or bacon and eggs that then greeted most Americans at the breakfast table.
The cereal was popular with patients, and the brothers started a small production and mail-order operation. John was too busy running the sanitarium and fighting degeneracy to notice the commercial potential of corn flakes, but the upside was not lost on W.K. In 1904, a former sanitarium patient named C. W. Post launched a commercial line of cornflakes. W. K. could no longer stand by. In 1906, he founded the Battle Creek Toasted Corn Flake Company, which is known today as the Kellogg Company.
By the mid-1920s, W. K. Kellogg was the Cereal King of America, and a very wealthy man. The final third of his life was dedicated to philanthropy. In 1923, he created the Fellowship Corporation, which quietly funded charities throughout Battle Creek and southern Michigan. In the late 1920s, as Kellogg was approaching 70, he wanted to create a more organized enterprise. This was the start of the W. K. Kellogg Foundation, which began operations in 1930.
Kellogg confined the foundation’s giving to “the health, education, and welfare of mankind, but principally of children or youth, directly or indirectly, without regard to sex, race, creed, or nationality.” In large part, it was a response to the poverty, strictures, and labor of his own boyhood. But there was another reason. In 1913, his grandson, a toddler named Kenneth Williamson, fell out of a second-story window. The boy nearly died, and was physically disabled for the rest of his life.
Kellogg was astounded that, despite his wealth, he could not find adequate medical care anywhere in southern Michigan. In a letter to a Battle Creek physician, Kellogg wrote that Kenneth’s accident “caused me to wonder what difficulties were in the paths of needy parents who seek help for their children when catastrophe strikes, and I resolved to lend what aid I could to such children.” A central focus of Kellogg’s philanthropy would be children’s health care.
A year after opening its doors, the Kellogg Foundation launched the Michigan Community Health Project. Focused on the seven counties of southern Michigan, the 17-year initiative built new hospitals in rural areas, helped organize public-health departments, and provided nurses and doctors for remote towns. In 1942, the State Department asked Kellogg to expand the program to Latin America as a wartime gesture of goodwill. Kellogg willingly complied. “In doing so,” notes historian Joel Orosz, “the foundation curiously became international in scope before it became national.”
Over the last 21 years of his life, Kellogg donated a total of some $66 million to the foundation. He initially funded its activities from his checkbook, refusing to endow the foundation until it had proven its effectiveness. (When he did endow the foundation, he gave it nearly all of his equity in the Kellogg Company—some 54 percent of the common stock.) Though glaucoma left him legally blind at age 80, he attended every board meeting, worked closely with his staff, and frequently visited with grantees, always accompanied by one of his faithful German Shepherds, all of whom were descendants of Rin-Tin-Tin.
Through his foundation, Kellogg also created the Ann J. Kellogg School, named for his mother, one of the first elementary schools to teach children with disabilities alongside children without disabilities. He likewise used his foundation to donate his Arabian horse farm to the University of California. (In 1949, it became the home of California State Polytechnic, Pomona, which remains devoted to the teaching technical arts and applied sciences.) Although Kellogg conducted most of his philanthropy through his foundation, he funded a few projects from his checkbook, including his support for summer camps for low-income families, the creation of the Kellogg Bird Sanctuary, and the establishment of an experimental demonstration farm at Michigan State University.
“Dollars do not create character,” W. K. Kellogg often said. But he knew that dollars could help, and he charged his foundation, today one of the largest in the nation, with helping “children face the future with confidence, with health, and with a strong-rooted security in the trust of this country and its institutions.”
~ Martin Morse Wooster