Alfred Kinsey Biography

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(History of the World: The 20th Century)

Article abstract: The greatest pioneer in sex research since Sigmund Freud, Kinsey revolutionized the study of human sexual behavior by applying to it the methodology of scientific empiricism.

Early Life

Alfred Charles Kinsey was born June 23, 1894, in Hoboken, New Jersey, to a self-made, forceful man, Alfred Seguine Kinsey, who became a professor of engineering at Stevens Institute of Technology. His mother, Sarah Ann, was extremely shy. The family had few friends and entertained sparingly. Alfred, Jr., was close neither to his parents nor to his younger brother, Robert. During his first ten years, he was troubled by rickets, a weak heart, and typhoid fever; the aftereffects of the last-named disease exempted him from military service in World War I.

The family moved to South Orange in 1903, and the frail boy developed a passionate, lifelong love for the out-of-doors, becoming an Eagle Scout and organizing his own troop. While in high school, he published his first article, “What Do Birds Do When It Rains?” based on hours of meticulous observation in fields and forests and presaging his penchant for detailed and precise analysis. Kinsey’s other compelling interest was the piano.

To please his overbearing father, Kinsey studied engineering for two years at Stevens Institute of Technology but then decided to attend Bowdoin College and major in biology. The father, outraged at his son’s defiance, refused him any financial aid once he had enrolled at Bowdoin. (The two were to meet only rarely in subsequent years.) Kinsey was a serious student who kept apart from most campus social activities; for relaxation, he played the piano, hiked in the woods, or starred on the debating team; he never dated.

After graduating magna cum laude in 1916, he entered Harvard’s distinguished Bussey Institute, majoring in taxonomy and serving as an instructor in biology and zoology while working for his Sc.D. degree, which he received in 1920. While at Bussey, Kinsey began collecting thousands of gall wasps, which fascinated him as living evidence of evolution. As he ranged over the country in his search for the insects, he encountered simple country residents with whom he developed empathy; in his later sex research he was to prove singularly skilled in interviewing people of rudimentary formal education. Moreover, he developed an intricate shorthand system for recording his findings concerning the galls; this system anticipated his intricate coding device for noting detailed sexual histories on a single sheet.

Indiana University offered Kinsey an assistant professorship in zoology, starting in the fall term of 1920. His decision to accept this bid over others was influenced by his having encountered, on the occasion of his job interview, a chemistry major named Clara Bracken McMillen. They married in June, 1921, had four children, and were harmoniously matched in their interests—she was also fascinated by insects and joined him on his gall-wasp hunts. The Kinseys took pride in building their own home and cultivating a garden that many visitors considered Bloomington’s most beautiful.

Kinsey climbed the academic ladder smoothly, achieving a full professorship in 1929. He became the world’s leading authority on gall wasps, measuring and cataloging 3,500,000 specimens. He wrote a high school biology textbook, An Introduction to Biology (1926), which sold nearly half a million copies. In the 1930’s, he wrote three more biology texts and about twenty scholarly articles. Then came what proved the turning point of his career: He was asked by university administrators to coordinate a marriage course, initially to be taught in the summer of 1938. Kinsey was surprised to find no reliable statistical evidence regarding human sexual conduct. He decided that the empirical, taxonomic approach he had successfully used for his gall wasps and biology classes might also work well for sex research. He therefore began, in July, 1938, to take the sexual...

(The entire section is 3,079 words.)