Alfred Kinsey Biography (1894-1956)

zoologist, sex researcher

Alfred Kinsey became a household name in the 1950s for his research on the sexual mores of American women and men. His two major texts, Sexual Behavior in the Human Male (1948) and Sexual Behavior in the Human Female (1953), broke new ground in the field of sex research and led to more openand honest investigations of sexual practices. Before he achieved international fame as a sex researcher, Kinsey had already established himself in the world of science as a leading zoologist and entomologist, becoming the world'sforemost authority on the American gall wasp . Throughout his career, regardless of the subject, Kinsey remained inquisitive and scientifically high-minded.

Kinsey was born in Hoboken, New Jersey, on June 23, 1894. His father, Alfred,taught at the Stevens Institute of Technology, despite having only an eighth-grade education. His mother, Sarah Ann (Charles), the daughter of a carpenter, had completed only four years of schooling. Kinsey was a sickly child, plagued by rheumatic fever, rickets, and typhoid. His parents werestrict and deeply religious, rejecting many of life's aesthetic pleasures. In spite of this puritanical upbringing, Kinsey acquired a life-long appreciation of music and poetry. Starting in the seventh grade, he began collecting botanical specimens. He undertook rigorous nature expeditions, which seemed toimprove his poor health. He joined the Boy Scouts of America shortly after the organization was founded in 1910, earned the prestigious designation of Eagle Scout, and became a scout leader during high school. His early botanicalstudies were encouraged by his high school biology teacher, Natalie Roeth, with whom he would correspond throughout his life. During high school, inspiredby Roeth, he wrote a paper entitled "What Do Birds Do When It Rains?"

After high school, Kinsey considered a career in the natural sciences, but his father wanted him to train as an engineer. He obligingly enrolled at the Stevens Institute and studied mechanical engineering for two years. His interest in engineering was limited, however, and, after reaching a compromise withhis father, he enrolled as a junior at Bowdoin College in Brunswick, Maine, to study biology. During his two years at Bowdoin, he earned a reputation as adeadly serious student and a first-rate pianist. He received his B.S. from Bowdoin magna cum laude in 1916 and gave the commencement address at graduation.

In 1916, Kinsey received a scholarship from Harvard University and began hispostgraduate work at the Bussey Institution. He was immediately drawn to thestudy of gall wasps (American Cynipidae), a small, ant-sized insect which lays its eggs inside growths (or galls) in large plants. The gall wasp can stayin its pupal state for years, and its life-span is extremely short, often less than a few hours. During his time at the Bussey Institution, Kinsey wrote his first text, Edible Wild Plants of Eastern North America, which wasnot published until 1943, when survivalist concerns were stronger. After completing his graduate work, he embarked on a one-year Sheldon Traveling Fellowship, touring the southwestern U.S. in pursuit of gall wasps. In 1920, he accepted a teaching position in the department of zoology at Indiana Universityin Bloomington.

Kinsey, a well-respected teacher and lecturer, was an easily identifiable figure on Indiana University's campus due to his trademark bow tie, white shirt,and crew cut. He often took undergraduates outdoors for hands-on nature studies. In the summer of 1921, he married Clara Brachen McMillen, a Phi Beta Kappa chemistry scholar. In typical Kinsey fashion, the couple spent their honeymoon on a camping expedition in the White Mountains of New Hampshire. The Kinsey's four children were all born between 1922 and 1928.

During the late 1920s, Kinsey continued his entomological research, contributing numerous articles on the gall wasp to scientific journals. His high school textbook, An Introduction to Biology, appeared in 1926, to enthusiastic reviews. The next year a companion text, Field and Laboratory Manual in Biology, was published. Soon after the appearance of this text, Kinsey's oldest child, Donald, died, succumbing to complications from diabetes.

Kinsey's first major text, The Gall Wasp Genus Cynips: A Study in the Origin of the Species, was published in 1930. In 1936, The Origin of Higher Categories of Cynips, appeared and bolstered Kinsey's reputation asthe leading authority on the gall wasp and as one of the most original thinkers in the field of genetic theory. At this point, his firmly established career took an unusual twist. In the summer of 1938, Kinsey, then age 44, beganteaching a noncredit marriage course for seniors at Indiana University. The course was the result of a petition sent to the Board of Trustees by a group of students the previous spring.

Before the course began, Kinsey, always the scientist, decided to study the subject of sex and marriage in detail. He read every known reference on the subject and was appalled by the inaccuracies and lack of scientific detail andhonesty. The course he designed took a more biological approach. As part of the course, students were asked to complete detailed questionnaires, which constituted the first of Kinsey's case histories. Finding the questionnaires inappropriate and open to errors of interpretation, he began conducting face-to-face interviews, using a corner of his busy laboratory. By 1940, Kinsey's marriage course was opened to freshman and sophomores and grew so popular that enrollment soon reached 400 students per semester.

Around this time, Kinsey realized he needed a more general human sample in order to conduct meaningful research. He began to travel out of town to conductinterviews with additional subjects. At first, his trips were relegated to the weekends but, as his interest grew, his time away from the campus increased. Kinsey's growing involvement with sex research did not go unnoticed by hiscollege's administration nor by the local clergy, the medical community, and, strangely enough, the University's department of sociology, all of whom wanted the course and Kinsey stopped. In 1940, he was called before Indiana University's president, Herman Wells, who demanded that Kinsey make a choice between his marriage course and sexual research. Kinsey resigned from the course.He then increased his number of out-of-town interviews and spent long hoursinterpreting data and training interviewers. David Halberstam, writing in American Heritage, reported that Mrs. Kinsey often said of her husband at this time, "I hardly see him at night any more since he took up sex."

During the 1940s, Kinsey embarked on a large-scale study of the sexual habitsof men and women. Initially, his resources were limited, and he used his ownmoney to hire staff and pay expenses. In 1943, he received a $23,000 grant from the Rockefeller Foundation, which enabled him to hire more staff and expand his efforts. Chief among his staff were colleagues W. B. Pomeroy, who alsoconducted thousands of sex interviews, Paul Gebhard , and Clyde Martin. Thefunding briefly legitimized his undertaking, which became known as the Institute for Sex Research of Indiana University .

By 1948 Kinsey and his colleagues were ready to release their initial findings. He chose a well-established medical publications firm, W. B. Saunders of Philadelphia, to publish the book, attempting to stress the scientific natureof the text rather than its potentially more lurid aspects. To avoid possiblefinancial retribution against Indiana University, the book was published while the Indiana legislature was in recess in December 1948. The 804 page book,Sexual Behavior in the Human Male, sold 185,000 copies in its firstyear in print and made the New York Times bestseller list. The bookemployed frank descriptions of biological functions and was nonjudgmental ofits subject's activities. Kinsey reported his findings simply and directly, pointing out a number of falsely held assumptions. In particular, the book reported that extramarital and premarital sex were more prevalent than generallybelieved; that nearly all males, especially teenagers, masturbated and thatmasturbation did not cause mental illness; and that one in three men reported having at least one homosexual encounter in their lifetimes.

Early polls indicated that most Americans agreed with Kinsey's findings. Themost vehement criticism came later from the expected sources: conservative and religious organizations. Most of these attacks were emotionally rather thanscientifically based, but few of Kinsey's colleagues came to his defense. The growing criticism jeopardized Kinsey's relationship with the Rockefeller Foundation. One of his chief critics, Henry Pitney Van Dusen , head of the Union Theological Seminary, was a member of the Rockefeller Board. And the new head of the foundation, Dean Rusk --who would later serve as secretary of stateduring John F. Kennedy's presidential administration--was growing weary of the foundation's well-publicized relationship with the Institute for Sex Research. The final break with the Rockefeller Foundation would come after Kinseyand his colleagues published their next book, Sexual Behavior in the Human Female.

The second sex book, as Kinsey expected, caused an even greater uproar than the first. Some of the book's more controversial findings concerned the low rate of frigidity, high rates of premarital and extramarital sex, the rapidnessof erotic response, and a detailed discussion of clitoral versus vaginal orgasm. The book soared up the best-seller charts, eventually reaching sales of250,000 in the U.S. alone. Criticism was harsh, and Kinsey's methods and motives were once again questioned. Evangelist Billy Graham was quoted by Halberstam in American Heritage as stating: "It is impossible to estimate the damage this book will do to the already deteriorating morals of America."

In August 1954, the Rockefeller Foundation, under increasing political pressure, announced its decision to cease funding for Kinsey's Institute. The nonpolitical Kinsey was now branded a subversive and accused of furthering the Communist cause by undermining American morals. He responded to these attacks byworking even more diligently. The Institute turned its focus to a large-scale study of sex offenders, and Kinsey seemed determined to carry on. But the incessant criticism and lack of support took their toll. He wrote a scathing letter to Rusk, excerpted in American Heritage, pointing out that, "to have fifteen years of accumulated data in this area fail to reach publication would constitute an indictment of the Institute, its sponsors, and all others who have contributed time and material resources to this work."

Kinsey searched in vain for new sources of funding. He was troubled by insomnia and began taking sleeping pills and other medications. In 1955, he traveled to England and Europe, where he lectured on various topics and studied local sexual morés. Upon his return, he developed heart trouble and was hospitalized several times. In the spring of 1956, despite his poor health, hetraveled to Chicago to conduct his final interviews, subjects 7,934 and 7,935. On August 25, 1956, at the age of 62, Kinsey died of pneumonia and heart complications.

Recent Updates

August 11, 2004: The biopic Kinsey, directed by Bill Condon andstarring Liam Neeson, opened at the Toronto International Film Festival. Source: New York Times,, August 11, 2004.February 14, 2005: "Kinsey," an episode of the PBS series "American Experience," aired on February 14, 2005. Source: New York Times,, February 14, 2005.

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