Your breakfast bowl has a very dirty secret. You might think of corn flakes as a basic, if not painfully bland, meal to start your day. However, its story actually begins in the strange overlap between 19th-century medicine, thoughts on masturbation, and puritanical Christian beliefs.
John Harvey Kellogg first created corn flakes in 1898 alongside his brother, WK Kellogg, in what’s often branded to be a failed attempt at making granola. The result of this misfired experiment was a perfectly plain foodstuff to feed patients at the Battle Creek Sanitarium in Michigan where he worked.
Although a physician and nutritionist by trade, his devotion to the Seventh-day Adventist Church meant that his newly-invented corn flakes were viewed in a different light. Around the turn of the 20th century, Kellogg was a big player in the “clean living movement”, a morality-infused public health crusade that emphasized the importance of hygiene, cleanliness, and purity.
This led him to be deeply against sex in all its glorious forms. It’s often noted that he and his wife slept in separate bedrooms and never consummated their marriage. Above all, he was really, really against masturbation.
Dr Kellogg was so disturbed by the griminess of human sexuality, he decided to spend weeks writing a whole book about sex, masturbation, "filthy dreams”, prostitution, and other sexual vices.
His seminal book – Plain Facts for Old and Young: Embracing the Natural History and Hygiene of Organic Life – contains some go-to tips on how to help a person “obsessed” with masturbation and “self-abuse”, with a strong emphasis on exercise and diet.
Rich and spicy foods were the enemies, in his eyes, but a simple diet could help subdue the urge to masturbate, including plain foodstuffs just like his freshly patented corn flakes (convenient, eh?).
And so, the innocent corn flake was drafted to become a foot soldier in the war against masturbation.
Anti-masturbatory morning meals were just the tip of his grand plans, however. Kellogg wrote some downright extremist methods of preventing masturbation around this time. For women, he advocated the “application of pure carbolic acid to the clitoris” to prevent “abnormal excitement”. He also recommended that all young boys be circumcised as a “remedy” to masturbation. In fact, he’s often described as one of the main driving forces behind routine infant circumcision in the US that remains common to this day.
Most of these ideas sound like outrageous quackery by today’s standards. However, if there's any defense of John Harvey Kellogg, a few of his ideas have stood the test of time. He was a huge early proponent of the “germ theory of disease” that proved specific microscopic organisms are the cause of specific diseases. He was also way ahead of his time when it came to understanding the microbiome of the intestinal tract.
If it’s any compensation to Kellogg’s more unsavory ideas, it’s safe to say that his anti-masturbatory meal didn’t work – people still enjoy corn flakes and many more enjoy masturbation.