Because Brian Wilson had excellent junior high and high school science teachers who sparked his interest in science and pushed him down a career path in medical microbiology, his first foray into publishing was a far cry from the historical biographies he’s become known for.
“My first publication was (an article titled) ‘Proton Motive Force and the Physiological Basis of Delta pH Maintenance in Thiobacillus acidophilus,’” Wilson says, smiling at this writer’s raised eyebrows at hearing the lengthy title. Wilson, now a professor of American religious history at Western Michigan University, has since authored several books with somewhat shorter titles, including the recently released John E. Fetzer and the Quest for the New Age, a historical biography of Southwest Michigan businessman and philanthropist John E. Fetzer.
How Wilson went from biomedics to religious history began with his stint in the Peace Corps after graduating with a bachelor’s degree in medical microbiology from Stanford University in 1982.
The Peace Corps sent Wilson to Florida to learn how to grow freshwater fish. “Because I had this biology degree, they decided I’d be great at teaching people how to grow freshwater fish in ponds,” he says.
After that, the Corps shuttled him to the mountains in Honduras — a climate too cold for the fish. The location had other problems too, such as deforestation and water issues, Wilson says, so he gained his first taste of classroom instruction teaching high school. The catch? Instructing in Spanish.
“I had four years of neglected high school Spanish,” he admits. “I barely got through it.”
But Wilson quickly grasped the country’s native language after a weekend of having to make his way around a remote village — alone — in what he calls a “sink-or-swim challenge.” Wilson swam.
“It really shows you, in a pinch, you can communicate,” he says. “I think it’s a great experience. For most people it really bolsters your confidence because you find out you know more than you think you know.”
While in Honduras and then the Dominican Republic, Wilson tapped into a latent interest in religions. He attended Mass in colonial-era churches in Honduras and was fascinated by the architecture and religious ceremonies. Wilson experienced a similar curiosity wandering around the Mayan ruins of Copan, near the Guatemalan border, which he found compelling “intellectually and emotionally.”
“How (were) these places used?” he remembers wondering. “What did people do here?”
When Wilson returned to the U.S., he dropped his pursuit of medical microbiology and instead received a master’s degree in Hispanic studies from the Monterey Institute of International Studies and an M.A. and Ph.D. in religious studies from the University of California–Santa Barbara. Wilson’s “bookish” and “explorative” tendencies pushed him toward a career in academia. As a child he liked to read and write and explore the open countryside and apple orchards near his home in what is now California’s Silicon Valley. “I always thought as a kid that eventually I’d write books,” he admits.
Which brings his story full circle: Wilson’s book John E. Fetzer and the Quest for the New Age, released in August, details Fetzer’s spiritual journey. The book follows Wilson’s 2014 book, Dr. John Harvey Kellogg and the Religion of Biological Living, and his 2008 book, Yankees in Michigan. It was Wilson’s biography of Kellogg that caught the attention of the Memorial Trust, a branch of the Fetzer Institute set up shortly before Fetzer died to preserve his legacy. The trust reached out to Wilson to write a Fetzer biography.
“The whole idea was kind of to preserve his legacy,” Wilson explains. “That’s what they’re in the process of doing now — cataloging the archives and making them available online, and the book project was part of that too.”
Fetzer, who lived from 1901 to 1991, was one of the most influential men of his day and among the 400 richest men in America. Most people know of his ownership of the Detroit Tigers and his business success but may not be aware of his life as a spiritual seeker, Wilson says. That interest was sparked by his mother, who became a Seventh Day Adventist during his teen years. The young man followed her into the religion, Wilson says.
“For about 10 years he was a very fervent kind of Seventh Day Adventist,” Wilson says. After that, Fetzer and his wife, Rhea, wanted to explore other religions.
Many don’t know about Fetzer’s spiritual pursuits because he was an extremely private man and shared that part of his life with only his closest friends, Wilson says. Fetzer’s occupation was media, but he wanted to stay out of the newspaper, since he wanted to live a simple and modest lifestyle.
“He had a nice home, but not a fancy home, on Clovelly (Road), off of Oakland,” Wilson says. “And that’s where he lived with his wife his entire life. And they didn’t have chauffer-driven limousines or private jets or anything like that.”
While writing John E. Fetzer and the Quest for the New Age, Wilson found similarities between Fetzer and Kellogg. They were both driven as entrepreneurs and seekers interested in what they saw as the harmony between science and religion. In addition, both amassed great wealth and questioned the proper use of it. But their paths diverged drastically near the end of their lives.
“Kellogg kind of went off the rails in his later life and got into eugenics (the belief in selective breeding based on genetics to improve the human race) in a big way,” Wilson explains. “That’s something that most people didn’t know about.”
Written for the general audience, John E. Fetzer and the Quest for the New Age will appeal to history buffs, baseball fans and philanthropists alike, and its reach goes far beyond Kalamazoo, Wilson says
“It’s a Kalamazoo story, it’s a Michigan story,” he says, “but I also think it’s a national story as well.”