William Danforth


“I dare you.”
—William Danforth

William Danforth made a name for himself as an ambitious entrepreneur, but  he started life in a much different condition. He was a sickly child, but he used his medical problems to change his own life, and the lives of everyone he met. He founded and built Ralston Purina into one of the largest and most successful companies in the world, while empowering others to succeed with his motivational approach to life. He was “dared” as a child to change his life for the better, and he used that same dare to raise others up around him.


Location of Charleston in MissouriTHE EARLY YEARS

William H. Danforth was born around 1870 and grew up in southeast Missouri. The Bootheel section of the state was economically depressed at the time, which led to hard times for many families in the area. The sick young boy was forced to spend many days and nights inside his home reading. One of his teachers became concerned about his health, so she dared him to become the “healthiest boy in class.” He took the teacher up on the dare and began the process of changing his life for better health.

He moved to St. Louis to attend Washington University, where he graduated in 1892. His real passion was working with animals, so he looked for a job that would allow him to continue studying their behavior. Eventually, he began mixing feed formulas for farmers in the area, when he realized he could make a great career in animal feed.


Two years after graduating from Washinton University, Danforth officially opened a feed business in St. Louis called Robinson Danforth Commission Company, which eventually became Ralston Purina. Much of the area was still farm land, so he had little trouble finding customers to build his blossoming business. His business model was quite successful, so he expanded it to include thirty-two other cities in the United States and Canada. The business was growing rapidly, but World War I interrupted it for a while as he enlisted in the military. He used his time wisely during the war to further develop his business models, which laid the foundation for his company to become a household name.


Danforth knew that foods had a dramatic effect on health, yet few people knew much about nutrition in the early 1900s. The company introduced a breakfast food called Purina Whole Wheat Cereal at about the same time Albert Edgerly, known as Dr. Ralston, put forth his philosophy on healthy living. Part of Dr. Ralston’s health plan was to incorporate whole wheat into your diet, which was espoused in the book Life Building. Dr. Ralston had a large following, so Danforth asked him to endorse his new cereal. Ralston agreed, and the two entities were soon synonymous and the company name was changed to Ralston Purina.

The next big breakthrough for the company came during World War I, thanks to an astute observation by Danforth. He noticed that soldiers’ spirits were raised whenever they heard the word “chow.” He pointed out that the troops were happier and the food seemed to taste better when it was called chow. He figured he could capitalize on the emotions that surrounded the slang term, so he incorporated the word “Chow” into his animal products to entice people to buy them for their pets. Soon, pet foods named Puppy Chow, Cat Chow, and Dog Chow were on store shelves. He combined the new product names with the distinctive red and white checkerboard square design to expand his market presence. These two moves made his company one of the most identifiable in American product packaging. Under Danforth’s leadership, Ralston Purina became the largest producer of dry dog and cat foods and a leading producer of cat box filler in the country, and one of the one hundred largest corporations in North America.

His professional career was satisfying, but his real desire was to motivate others. He had built his life on the “dare” principle he learned as a child and used it in almost every aspect of his life. He taught the dare principles in a number  of books, the most famous of which was titled I Dare You. The philosophy simply stated that each person has not one, but four lives to live: “Physical,” “Mental,” “Social,” and “Religious.” Danforth pointed out that all four areas of your life must grow in balance with each other, where the mind should not be developed at the expense of the personality, nor the body at the expense of character. His philosophy proved a success as thousands of people adopted his theories to better their own lives.

His four-square philosophy enabled him to live a long and productive life. He assisted the community in incredible ways, establishing the Danforth Foundation in 1927 as a national educational philanthropy. The foundation continues to give out millions of dollars to individuals and community projects all across the country. His amazing life came to an end on Christmas Eve 1955 at the age of eighty-five.


*Danforth claimed that he never missed a single day of work due to illness.

*He made it a point to walk at least one mile every day and get eight hours of sleep a night with the windows open.

*Employees of Ralston Purina were given a motivational message every Monday by Danforth himself.

*Purina stands for “Where Purity is Paramount.”

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