American physician and researcher who, in collaboration with Virginia Johnson, pioneered in the physiological study of human sexual function.
William Masters was born in Cleveland, Ohio, grew up in Kansas City, and did his undergraduate work at Hamilton College. He received his M.D. degree in 1943 from the University of Rochester School of Medicine, where he assisted in the laboratory research of George Washington Corner, who was studying and comparing the reproductive systems of animals and humans. Masters's interest in the study of
sexuality was reinforced when he learned of the research done by Alfred Kinsey (1894-1956) at the University of Indiana, where he had interviewed men and women about their sexual experiences. Masters completed his internship and residency at St. Louis Hospital and Barnes Hospital, choosing obstetrics and gynecology as a speciality. He also did an internship in pathology at the Washington University School of Medicine.
In 1947, Masters was appointed to the faculty of Washington University, where he conducted research in areas including hormone-replacement therapy for postmenopausal women. In 1954, he began researching the physiology of sex by collecting data about sexual stimulation in a laboratory situation. His work, which took place at Washington University, was supported by a grant from the United States Institute of Health. By 1956, Virginia Johnson, a sociology student, was assisting Masters interview and screen research volunteers. Over an 11-year period, Masters studied 382 women and 312 men ranging in age from 18 to 89, recording their sexual responses using electrocardiographs and electroencephalographs.
Masters established the Reproductive Biology Research Foundation in 1964. Two years later, Masters and Johnson published the results of their long-term laboratory investigation of the physiology of human sexual activity in Human Sexual Response. This book is generally considered to be the first major scientific analysis of the subject, and was produced to provide physicians and psychologists with factual information useful in the treatment of sexual dysfunction. Despite the book's promotion solely as a serious research work, it won wide popular acclaim, and its authors were soon in demand as speakers and lecturers.
Since 1959, Masters and Johnson had been applying their studies to counseling sexually dysfunctional couples, working together as a team so that each member of a couple would have a therapist of the same sex to relate to. Having found sexual functioning susceptible to conditioning, much like other human and animal behaviors, they used learning strategies based on the theories of Ivan Pavlov, B. F. Skinner, Wolpe, and others. Following the principles of operant conditioning and desensitization, they helped their patients "unlearn" blocks involving arousal and/or orgasm. Masters and Johnson were married in 1971 and became co-directors of the Masters and Johnson Institute in 1973. In their 1979 work, Homosexuality in Perspective, Masters and Johnson detailed the results of studies based on the responses of homosexuals and lesbians, whose sexual preferences they claimed to be able to change.
Masters retired from private practice in gynecology in 1981, although he and his wife continued to operate the Masters and Johnson Institute, which moved to a new location that year. In 1988, they co-authored the book Crisis: Heterosexual Behavior in the Age of AIDS with Robert Kolodny, attracting criticism within the medical community—including that of then Attorney General C. Everett Koop—for their prediction that the AIDS epidemic would spread to the heterosexual population. Masters and Johnson were divorced in 1992, ending their work together at the Institute. Their other books include Human Sexual Inadequacy (1970), The Pleasure Bond (1974), Human Sexuality (1988), and Heterosexuality (1994).
Robinson, Paul. The Modernization of Sex. New York: Harper & Row, 1976.
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