There’s a story that has been retold in MIT lecture halls for years. It’s not about supercomputers, gene replacement theories, or dark matter hypotheses. It’s about Apple Jacks. It was late spring 1965. The miniskirt was showing up in London; the Voting Rights Act was weeks away from being signed; and the future Dr. William Thilly was about to take a break from studying at MIT. Uninterested in cleaning chicken coops on the family apple farm, he needed a summer job. One day, walking around campus, he noticed a posted sign-up sheet from Kellogg’s looking for a summer research assistant, and signed his name.
No one else signed up, and on interview day, he came face to face with a Kellogg’s executive in a hotel conference room who had promised to bring back someone from MIT to the cereal company’s Battle Creek, Michigan headquarters. Thilly was “it” by default. He packed his bags and headed to the midwest, where he met other guys his age, and when not at work, played softball, drank beer in the local bars, and generally had a great time.
It was a summer without much responsibility, until what he calls the “great cheese tragedy.” The company was experimenting with a cheese puff-like snack filled with cheese. (Combos, eat your heart out. And by the way, Thilly has never heard of you). The injectable, liquid cheese was in an experimental machine as well, kind of a high-powered tractor with a skinny telephone pole pipe of cheese, as Thilly recalls.
“One day, we failed to connect the cable of cheese to the thing,” he says. “High pressure cheese covered the entire research and development area, all this equipment that was impeccably maintained. There was cheese everywhere.”
Thilly had the wherewithal to up the steam and melt the cheese off all the equipment so cheese would snake down drains in the floor and steam would sanitize everything again to working order. He stayed after hours, and despite getting some serious steam burns, he and a co-worker successfully saved the research department and brought it back to functionality.
And at this point, I guess you’re pausing to ask, Wait, what does this have to do with cereal?
“They doubled my pay, put me on my own, and said, ‘What would you like to create?’” It was a heady reward for a paid intern, as it were, and he was assigned to work with “the man in the bow tie. I can’t remember his name, but he was 10-12 years older than me, a lot smarter than me, and friendly, but not outgoing or gregarious. He just treated me like a co-worker, not like a kid, and we started working together.”
Thilly immediately called on his experience growing up on an apple farm He knew almost anything could be augmented with apples, and the bowtie-clad man brought in some leftover O’s from a discontinued Kellogg’s brand. “First, we tried dried applesauce, but the cereal stuck together and sank to the bottom of the bowl,” he explained. When the two found out about a dried apple product that was sold in California, they alerted their boss, who, without a word, picked up the phone and got a entire train car shipped to the company so they could experiment in the middle of the night.
This was top-secret stuff, after all—cereal was big business even back then—so in the wee hours of a midwestern summer, Thilly and his co-workers figured out how to apply the dried bits to the Os. They added some cinnamon, and voila, an Apple Jacks ancestor was born. About that time, Thilly’s tenure at Kellogg’s ended and he returned to college, so he missed the testing and the roll out. Then, one day, he opened his Boston Globe to see an advertisement for the product he helped create.
Thilly has told his story for years to his classes at MIT, where he earned a SHd (a special MIT-only designation) in Nutritional Biochemistry. He and his wife discovered the visual fingerprints for stem cells. Now they are working with this knowledge of stem cells to figure out how to kill cancerous tumors. In the meantime, he’s a dad to his six kids, still teaching, and still running a lab.
And as for what mysterious flavor Apple Jacks is these days, he couldn’t say: He hasn’t eaten a bowl since the ‘70s.