Breakfast, sex and cornflakes…

Breakfast, they say, is the most important meal of the day. Parents are encouraged to get the kids to eat before setting off for school, as an empty stomach isn’t conducive to learning and education.

You might have a heart-attack-on-a-plate Ulster Fry, or the ‘Full Irish’. Perhaps you prefer something more healthy, and you search the supermarket shelves for organic, high-fibre and low glycaemic index grains. Or, then maybe you take an easier route, and buy a packet of Kellogg’s Corn Flakes. Today the (supposed) original benefits of these aren’t in the marketing.

Dr John Harvey Kellogg was an American physician who had deep religious convictions, which could have influenced his treatments. He ran what we might now call a health spa in the late 19th century. He encouraged a sparse, vegetarian diet, exercise and chastity. Like many physicians of the time, he believed in purgation, and prescribed it frequently for his patients. Unusually, he followed the enema with a pint of yoghurt, half given as an enema, with the patients eating the remainder; his belief was that many diseases were caused by the wrong type of gut flora (bacteria). While this might seem outlandish, the practice of giving people enemas of ‘good’ bacteria has been recently resurrected in cases of severe inflammatory bowel disease, though today the enema is prepared from the stools of healthy donors. This certainly seems to be effective. The ideas behind the modern version of the human ‘microbiome‘ are quite recent.

And, like many of his contemporaries, Dr Kellogg had strong views about sex in general (it was a ‘bad thing’) and ‘Onanism’ in particular, devising several quite barbaric treatments for the treatment of this entirely imaginary disease both in men and in women. The term ‘Onanism’ as a reference to the supposedly unhealthy effects of masturbation is first found in the early 18th century. It was the Swiss physician (and holder of deep religious convictions) Dr Samuel-Auguste Tissot who, slightly later, popularised the concept of masturbation being a ‘degeneracy’ in an extensive, academic book. He described the multiple problems that the sufferer could have, leading, inevitably it seems, to death.

Onan’s story is in Genesis. Briefly, Onan’s brother died, and Onan was expected to have intercourse with the brother’s widow, Tamar, to provide her with offspring from a similar genetic background. This was in accordance with the Levirate law at the time. Onan, however, ‘spilled his seed on the ground’, and was struck down by the Lord; not because of the intercourse, but because he didn’t get Tamar pregnant. Many, but not all, scholars think that ‘spilling his seed on the ground’ refers to coitus interruptus, a minority think it’s actually masturbation; behind both understandings is the idea of wasting vital and precious fluids. And just to indicate how far ideas today have changed, there is a body of opinion that holds that ‘wasting precious bodily fluids’ whether by intercourse or masturbation might delay or even prevent the onset of prostatic cancer.

Back to Dr Kellogg. He held the view that Onanism was caused by excessive ‘internal heat’; this was caused, unsurprisingly, by eating the ‘wrong’ foods which encouraged the build up of this (entirely imaginary) ‘internal heat’. Thus were born his Corn Flakes; a dietary aid in the prevention of masturbation.

After this, you might prefer a change from such a remarkable foodstuff; perhaps Graham Crackers, a wholesome, healthy alternative. These were invented by another American, the Rev Sylvester Graham in the 1820s—and for exactly the same reason as Kellogg invented his Corn Flakes.