Sex. Celebrity. Politics. With Teeth
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Sex. Celebrity. Politics. With Teeth

John Harvey Kellogg's Legacy of Cereal, Sociopathy, and Sexual Mutilation

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John Harvey Kellogg was arguably the most famous physician of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. He introduced the concept of eating clean foods, exercise, and other healthful innovations. He was also the guy who invented cornflakes. And, in my opinion, he was a very bad man. The worst kind of bad, in fact: the kind that sleeps easy at night, believing his horrible work was the will of God.

Nothing is more dangerous than a monster with a clear conscience.

The Good Doctor

John Harvey Kellogg became famous because of the decades he spent running the famous Battle Creek Sanitarium for the newly minted Seventh-Day Adventist Church. It was not like most “sanatoriums”—convalescent hospitals or quarantines for people with tuberculosis. Battle Creek was America’s premiere health spa. You went there to be fed food that most people at the time considered fit only for farm animals, to use baffling machines of Kellogg’s invention, particularly those which involved getting pelted with water or thumped and shocked with electricity (not in a sexy way….well, depending on your kinks). Sometimes he prescribed shoving electricity and water up the urethra, a process to be done with “skillful catheterism.”


And he did invent cornflakes, along with his brother Will. They were intended to keep both the bowels and sexual organs of Sanitarium guests free of congestion. Eventually, Will decided to add sugar to the recipe and mass market the cereal. John did not support this, which is why it is actually Will’s name you read on the front of your cereal boxes today.

People loved “The San” and they loved Kellogg. In peak years, over 1,600 people made pilgrimages to live on The San’s ever growing campus. That, combined with the thousands of words of medical advice the doctor published, made him a powerful person to those seeking healing.

No doubt that Kellogg did good for many people. But he wasn’t a good doctor, and perhaps not a good person. Nowhere was this more apparent than in his obsession with the destructive power of masturbation.

Whatever It Is, You Have It Because You Masturbated

Guess, if you dare, what miserable vice causes the following conditions:

  • Idiocy
  • Spinal derangement
  • Heart Palpitations
  • Nervous Breakdowns
  • Epilepsy
  • Warts
  • Uterine Prolapse
  • Uterine Cancer
  • Insanity
  • Sterility
  • Cruel Birth Defects in the Unborn (including “hydrocephalus, to epilepsy, convulsions, palsy. , tubercular and glandular maladies, diseases of the vertebrae and of the joints, softening of the central portions of the brain, and tuberculous formations in the membranes, palsy and convulsions, chorea, inflammations of the membranes or substance of the brain or spinal cord.”)

They are all caused, according to Dr. Kellogg, by the practice of female masturbation.

Things That Stimulate the Sin-Switch

Masturbation could begin, in the most tragic of cases, at a young age. Kellogg reported that he had seen children as young as two years of age place their hands upon their own genitalia. In these cases the child, already deficient in morals, was most likely suffering from the sins her parents committed before she was even born. Having excessive sexual relations during pregnancy, or being the offspring of a masturbator, could warp the values of a fetus in utero.


Kellogg did not believe any natural inclination would draw a child’s hand to their private parts. These manipulations came from dark and foul sources, such as constipation, hemorrhoids, bladder infections, anal fissures, and uncleanliness of the organs. Other foul temptations were to be found in choice of bedding. Said Dr. Kellogg:

Soft beds and pillows must be carefully avoided...the floor, with a single folded blanket beneath the sleeper, would be preferable. A hair mattress, or a bed of corn husks —covered with two or three blankets or a quilted cotton mattress makes a very healthy and comfortable bed.”


And as you make your child comfortable on their bed of dried cornhusk or smashed brick (whatever you have available), Kellogg recommended children sleep on their sides, curled in upon their genitals. If you child is obstinate and keeps rolling over during sleep, tie a knotted sheet or rope to their backs. The discomfort will urge them back on their sides, where their genitals are less likely to be stimulated.

Speaking of stimulation, avoid consumption of sexually aggressive food such as tea, candy, cinnamon and peppermint. Said Kellogg, “Tea and coffee have led thousands to perdition in this way. Candies, spices, cinnamon, cloves, peppermint, and all strong essences, powerfully excite the genital organs and lead to the same result.”


Please also be aware of uncontrolled dreaming. REM sleep is the curse of a disorganized and polluted mind. In perfectly natural sleep, there are no dreams; consciousness is entirely suspended.” In fact, Kellogg counseled, disregard any patient’s claim that she cannot control her dreams. The truth is, she chooses not to, so as maintain one cherished outlet for her lascivious desires.

And finally, Kellogg gives the 19th century one more reason that women should abstain from reading. It might make them aware of their naughty-nubs.


“Story books, romances, love tales, and religious novels constitute the chief part of the reading matter which American young ladies greedily devour. We have known young ladies still in their teens who had read whole libraries of the most exciting novels….The taste for novel-reading is like that for liquor or opium.”

The problem with this sort of reading, explained Kellogg, is that it takes a girl beyond the wholesome dreadfulness of her reality and transports her to a place that triggers passion. Passion so great that some girls “discovered the fatal secret themselves.”


The Symptoms of a Child in Danger

The preceding has all been a bit of a yogurt-enema (another favorite treatment of the doctor). That is, weird and uncomfortable, but generally harmless, especially when considered in its historical element.

The real problem is how declarative Kellogg was, without examining alternate theories or offering actual evidence for his findings. Kellogg refused to even suspect he might be wrong and he provided no proof that he was right. There is no record of him doing double blind studies on the effects of cloves on the sexual drive of children. He just knows.


Warning: here we must take a rather vicious turn. These are the symptoms Kellogg gave to parents to identify whether or not their child was engaging in “the secret vice.”

Bed wetting: Masturbation causes the entire genital area to become lax and undisciplined.


Changes in Behavior: “When a girl, naturally joyous, happy, confiding, and amiable, becomes unaccountably gloomy, sad, fretful, dissatisfied, and unconfiding, be certain that [the cause] for it will rarely be found to be anything other than solitary indulgence.”

Insomnia: “Sleeplessness... may justly be a cause for suspicion of evil habits.”

Trouble in school: When a child who has previously learned readily, mastered his lessons easily, and possessed a retentive memory, shows a manifest decline in these directions...he has probably become the victim of a terrible vice, and is on the road to speedy mental as well as physical ruin. Watch him.”


Lying: “This vice has a wonderful influence in developing untruthfulness. A child previously honest, under its baneful influence will soon become an inveterate liar.”

Bashfulness: “If spoken to, instead of looking directly at the person to whom he addresses an answer, the masturbator looks to one side, or lets his eyes fall upon the ground, seemingly conscious that the eye is a wonderful tell-tale of the secrets of the mind.”


Boldness: “The individual seems to have not the slightest appreciation of propriety. He commits openly the most uncouth acts, if he does not manifest the most indecent unchastity of manner.”

Fearfulness: “Easily frightened children are abundant among young masturbators…The victim’s mind is constantly filled with vague forebodings of evil. He often looks behind him, looks into all the closets, peeps under the bed, and is constantly expressing fears of impending evil. Such movements are the result of a diseased imagination, and they may justly give rise to suspicion.”


Unusual vaginal discharge, stretched vaginal cavity: “The presence of leucorrhoea in a young girl accompanied by a relaxed condition of the vagina, is presumptive evidence of the existence of this vice.”

Seductive behavior in little girls: “A forward or loose manner in company with little boys is suspicious conduct, especially in one who has previously shown no disposition of this sort. Girls addicted to this habit usually show an unnatural fondness for the society of little boys, and not infrequently are guilty of the most wanton conduct.”


Do these feel oddly familiar to you? The Delaware Department of Services for Children, Youth and their Families gives a very succinct list of similar behaviors, which also includes changes in behavior, inappropriate sexual behaviors, changes in school performance, and vaginal discharge. Modern medicine and psychology identifies these conditions as potential signs of a child being sexually abused. The two lists match, almost word for word.

Gutting, isn’t it? A man who claimed great familiarity with so-called sexual deviance completely blind to the real instances.


Consider the following story, from Kellogg’s 1902 edition of Ladies’ guide in health and disease. He spoke of a mother who brought a 10-year-old rape victim to him: “Her first instruction was received from a hoary-headed fiend in human shape who had enticed her to a secluded place, and there introduced her to all the nastiness which his depraved and sensual nature could devise.”

But as Kellogg saw it, he was actually brought a 10-year-old masturbator. “…a little girl, naturally bright and unusually attractive and intelligent, had become the victim of this soul-and-body-destroying habit, which had brought on a serious nervous disease that threatened to destroy both body and mind before she had reached the age of ten years.”


Masturbation itself is a common reaction to trauma in children. But the reason why she masturbated was unimportant, an unfortunate side-note, spoken with the same casual dismissal he might use to describe a patient who picked up an exotic disease abroad. Her rape wasn’t the issue. As her physician, it was his job to save her from touching her genitals. At any cost.

The Cure

Kellogg advised that a child must first be caught in the act. He wanted parents to see them masturbating. The best way to do that, he says, is to sneak up on the child soon after they have gone to bed, throw off their blankets “under some pretense” and examine the child’s genitalia for sexually excited characteristics. This is the only “evidence” he ever suggests gathering, and it’s optional.


Boys will of course have an erection. That can be judged visually, perhaps. As for girls: “If the same course is pursued with girls, under the same circumstances, the clitoris will be found congested, with the other genital organs, which will also be moist from increased secretion.” That may require a physical inspection.

Here Kellogg was instructing adults to charge into a child’s room, rip off their blankets and nightclothes to expose their privates, and then to thoroughly inspect a girl’s (or teenager’s) vulva for an engorged clitoris and sexual lubrication. He is guiding an adult through a very particular course of sexual abuse of their own child.


Shame was one of Kellogg’s least destructive tools. There was hope that a single occurrence of this “morally justified” violation would be enough to stop the habit by shame alone. But it might not. More drastic measure may be needed. For those children Kellogg advised:

“Bandaging the parts has been practiced with success. Tying the hands is also successful in some cases; but this will not always succeed, for they will often contrive to continue the habit in other ways, as by working the limbs, or lying upon the abdomen. Covering the organs with a cage has been practiced with entire success.”

Image via the Wellcome Collection
Image via the Wellcome Collection

This still isn’t the reason I consider Kellogg irredeemable. Because sometimes those cages and tied hands weren’t enough to control a child. Occasionally, a child’s disturbance ran so deep, there was only one recourse. Little boys were to be circumcised, an operation seldom performed in the 19th century outside of religious reasons. Without painkillers of any sort.

“The operation should be performed by a surgeon without administering an anaesthetic, as the brief pain attending the operation will have a salutary effect upon the mind, especially if it be connected with the idea of punishment, as it may well be in some cases. The soreness which continues for several weeks interrupts the practice, and if it had not previously become too firmly fixed, it may be forgotten and not resumed.”


Pain is necessary. It confirms to the child that he is being punished.

As for little girls, Kellogg recommended a more permanent solution, as related in the following “case study.”

“A Desperate Case.—A little girl about ten years of age was brought to us by her father, who came with his daughter to have her broken of the vile habit of self-abuse into which she had fallen. Having read an early copy of this work, the father had speedily detected the habit, and had adopted every measure which he could devise to break his child of the destructive vice which she had acquired, but in vain… it finally became necessary to resort to a surgical operation, by which it is hoped that she was permanently cured, as we have heard nothing to the contrary since, and as the remedy seemed to be effectual.”


He never even looked in on the child after the operation. It would seem a common courtesy to follow up on a patient after you’ve cut off her clitoris and labia minora, or perhaps not to cut off her genitals altogether. But it was that or the carbolic acid, Kellogg’s other final cure.

Treatment-… the application of blisters [carbolic acid] and other irritants to the sensitive parts of the sexual organs, the removal of the clitoris and nymphaea, [labia minora] constitute the most proper treatment.


Faith Beats Facts

There were reams of medical literature available to Kellogg examining and decrying clitorectomies all through his career. (It should be noted that the operation was performed, and likely still is, in legitimate medical emergencies, such a tumor growth). And that literature was written by doctors who did follow-up research.

Kellogg, instead, clung to two main influences: an English doctor named Isaac Baker Brown, who was banned from practicing medicine because of his adherence to this procedure, and a preacher named Sylvester Graham. You know him—he invented your toddler’s favorite snack (barren of sugar or spice, originally) to dull her urge to touch her privates.


In 1868, near the height of the popularity of “life-saving” clitorectomies—which, thankfully, were not widely practiced—a highly respected gynecologist named Charles West wrote Lectures on the Diseases of` Women. He related the following story:

“I know a lady aged fifty-three, who had suffered from a painful fissure of the anus, for which she underwent the usual operation of dividing the mucous membrane of the ulcer. The surgeon who did this, without saying a word to the lady or to the husband, or indicating in any way what he was about to do, cut off her clitoris.

The stump of the amputated clitoris became the seat of pain…In answer to her enquiries, after some evasion, she at length learned what had been done, and further had the humiliation of discovering that the justification of the outrage was, that she was assumed by the surgeon to be addicted to a vice with the very name and nature of which she was alike unacquainted.”


West got to the heart of the matter: “It will, I imagine, scarcely be contended that proceedings which we should reprobate if practiced on the one sex, change their character when perpetrated on the other.” Meaning, what outrage would be met if doctors began lopping of penises without even consulting the patient? Yet this practice is unnoticed and even applauded when visited upon women.

In 1912, as the practice was losing its popularity (though there is no record of Kellogg ever recanting his faith in the procedure), Orificial surgery, its philosophy, application and technique, was published by Benjamin Dawson, Mrs. Elizabeth Muncie, and Albert Grant. “Mrs.” Muncie was a physician and surgeon, though apparently the “Dr.” prefix wouldn’t fit. The book denounced the practice completely, stating that clitorectomies brought “relief from the abnormal irritation which they sought to cure, but also from all normal sexual instincts, and was so frequently followed by insanity.”


“It is no more necessary to amputate a normal clitoris than it is a normal penis,” they wrote.

God is More Powerful than Good

Some people think Kellogg was a product of his time and has become a scapegoat, his public face making an easy target for outrage against the mistakes of the era. And maybe that’s true. But it was that public face that gave him his power, and allowed him to do more harm than the average child-clitoris cutter.


John Harvey Kellogg’s not-entirely-negative reputation for health reform would live a century beyond his time; he was a Christian man, and a doctor. He became the face of Victorian health, body and soul. And all the while, he was cutting off little girls’ genitals because they touched themselves. He was binding the hands of 10-year-old rape victims, suggesting they were just as responsible for their shame as their rapists. He was using carbolic acid to burn the flesh of children so that they would know they had sinned.

And he believed he was doing God’s work. He cited no solid research, experimentation, tests, or proof. He seemed to have believed himself beyond the need for them. He should have known better. Maybe he did.


Therese Oneill lives in Oregon and writes for The Atlantic, The Week, Mental Floss and more. Her first book, “Unmentionable: The Victorian Lady’s Guide to Sex, Marriage and Manners” will be available from Little, Brown in October. Meet her at

Illustration by Angelica Alzona