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Alfred Charles Kinsey

Breaks with father to become an entomologist, Studies on human sexuality bring fame and notoriety

American entomologist and sex researcher who pioneered the study of human sexuality.

Alfred Charles Kinsey was a well-known entomologist, specializing in the study of gall wasps, when his increasing interest in human sexuality led him in a entirely new scientific direction. Appalled by the lack of reliable scientific information on human sexual practices and problems, Kinsey began conducting extensive interviews, first with his students and then with larger populations. Kinsey's landmark studies, which emphasized both the variety of human sexual activities and the prevalence of practices that were condemned by society, led to a new openness in attitudes toward sex. His work was part of trend in which laws were liberalized and sex education for children became commonplace. Kinsey's research revived interest in the science of "sexology."

Born in 1894, in Hoboken, New Jersey, Kinsey was the son of a domineering father, Alfred Seguine Kinsey, and a devoutly religious mother, Sarah Anne (Charles) Kinsey. In 1904, the family, including a younger brother and sister, moved to the more fashionable town of South Orange, New Jersey. Childhood illnesses and a misdiagnosis of heart disease kept Kinsey out of sports, but his life-long interests in classical music and field biology developed at an early age. He became an avid outdoorsman, was active in the Boy Scouts, and spent summers as a camp counselor. Although he dreamed of becoming a biologist—his high school yearbook predicted that he would become "the second Darwin"—his father, who had worked his way up from shop boy to shop instructor at the Stevens Institute of Technology in Hoboken, demanded that Kinsey study engineering at Stevens.

Breaks with father to become an entomologist

Almost overnight, Kinsey went from high school valedictorian to a mediocre student at a technical college. After two years at Stevens, Kinsey announced to his father that he was transferring to Bowdoin College in Brunswick, Maine. Financing his education with his summer earnings and aid from a wealthy South Orange widow, Kinsey became the star biology student at Bowdoin, while maintaining his involvement with the local church and the YMCA. Graduating magna cum laude in 1916, Kinsey received a fellowship to Harvard University. He began studying gall wasps at the Bussey Institute under William Morton Wheeler. These tiny insects, that form galls, or growths, on roses and oaks, were the perfect

Alfred Kinsey (The Library of Congress. Reproduced by permission.)

subject for Kinsey's unwavering attention to detail and his love of collecting large samples in the wild. While at Harvard, Kinsey found time to write a botanical work, Edible Wild Plants of Eastern North America, although the book was not published until 1942. After earning his doctor of science in 1919, a Sheldon Travelling Fellowship enabled Kinsey to tramp across the country for a year, collecting gall wasps.

Settling into the life of a college professor at Indiana University in Bloomington, Kinsey married Clara Brachen McMillen in 1921. She was a chemistry student who shared his love of music and the outdoors. Over the next few years, the couple had four children, although the oldest died of diabetes before the age of four. The publication of Kinsey's texts, An Introduction to Biology (1926) and Field and Laboratory Manual in Biology(1927), provided the family with financial security. His books on gall wasps, published in the 1930s, established him as both the leading expert on these insects and an important theorist in genetics.

Studies on human sexuality bring fame and notoriety

Kinsey's interests were starting to turn from wasps to people. Disturbed by the lack of scientific knowledge concerning human sexuality, as well as the profound ignorance of his students concerning sexual matters, in 1938 Kinsey began teaching a course on marriage. The Indiana students, anxious for accurate information, flocked to the course and Kinsey turned them into his initial subjects. First with questionnaires and later with private interviews, Kinsey obtained detailed sexual histories of his students and counseled them on the most intimate matters. Soon, using his own funds to expand his research, Kinsey was interviewing large numbers of subjects in Chicago, analyzing data, and training collaborators. With funding from the National Research Council's Committee on the Research in Problems of Sex and the Rockefeller Foundation, he founded the Institute for Sex Research at Indiana University. In 1984 it was renamed the Kinsey Institute for Research in Sex, Gender, and Reproduction.

With the publication of his best-selling book, Sexual Behavior in the Human Male in 1948, Kinsey became an icon of popular culture. In language reminiscent of his high school yearbook, the popular press referred to Kinsey as the successor to Darwin. "The Kinsey Report," as it became known, used straightforward and accurate language to report the findings from thousands of interviews: most males, especially teenagers, masturbated frequently without going insane; premarital and extramarital sex were common; and one-third of all men reported having had at least one homosexual experience. Predictably, Kinsey's book was attacked by religious and conservative groups. With the publication of Sexual Behavior in the Human Female in 1953, the outcry increased and the Rockefeller Foundation withdrew their support. Kinsey's studies on women's sexuality included frank and detailed discussions of female sexual response and orgasm and further reports of frequent masturbation and premarital and extramarital sex. Kinsey was accused of undermining the morals of America.

Unable to obtain funding for a new large-scale study of sex offenders, Kinsey traveled to Europe and England in 1955. There he lectured and studied sexual attitudes. Despite increasingly poor health, he completed his 7,935th interview in Chicago in the spring of 1956. Ill with pneumonia and a heart condition, Kinsey fell and bruised himself in his garden. The bruise produced a fatal embolism, and he died in a Bloomington hospital in August, 1956, at the age of 62. Although both Alfred Kinsey and "The Kinsey Report" remain controversial, and later researchers have raised serious questions about Kinsey's methodologies, his work had a profound impact on sexual attitudes and beliefs.

Margaret Alic

Further Reading

Christenson, Cornelia V. Kinsey: A Biography. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1971.

Epstein, Joseph. "The secret life of Alfred Kinsey." Commentary 195 (January 1998): 35-39.

Gathorne-Hardy, Jonathan. Alfred C. Kinsey: Sex the Measure of all Things. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2000.

Jones, James H. Alfred C. Kinsey: A Public/Private Life. New York: W. W. Norton & Co., 1997.

Pomeroy, Wardell Baxter. Dr. Kinsey and the Institute for Sex Research. New York: Harper & Row, 1972.

Additional topics

Psychology EncyclopediaFamous Psychologists & Scientists