In the late 1800s, my great grandmother Allena was one of John Harvey Kellogg’s 42 foster children in Battle Creek, Michigan until she ran away to California as a teenager. The details are unclear as to why this “incorrigible” girl fled her caregivers, but a little reading about the man offers some clues.
Evidently, Kellogg ascribed to the not-uncommon belief of the late 19th century that masturbation was the cause of a host of physical and mental ailments in both boys and girls. He believed that a more simple diet could help to curb the temptation, and so corn flakes were invented as part of his anti-masturbatory regimen. However, if corn flakes didn’t do the trick, genital mutilation would: circumcision for boys, and carbolic acid applied to the clitoris for girls (or complete removal of the clitoris and labia minora if corn flakes and acid proved ineffective).
It might surprise readers to know that it wasn’t until the mid-19th century that circumcision began to be considered for “medical” reasons, and that currently the United States is the only country where routine infant circumcision is performed for non-religious reasons. In America, we can thank the “War on Self-Pollution” for the fact that it is largely taken for granted today. As I indicated, Kellogg’s attitudes toward masturbation and his belief in circumcision as a cure were not unique for his time. As Dr. Robert Darby writes in his review of David Gollaher’s Circumcision: A History of the World’s Most Controversial Surgery, the fixation on the evil of masturbation stems back to the 18th century and had tremendous influence on the adoption of circumcision for medical purposes.