Alfred Kinsey Biography


(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 histories of those of his marriage course students who were willing to provide them.

Within a year, Kinsey had amassed 350 histories but in the process had aroused opposition among a few colleagues and within the conservative Bloomington community. The university’s president, Herman Wells, offered Kinsey the choice of continuing either the marriage course or his case-history project. As a trained research scientist, Kinsey naturally preferred to pursue his investigative studies, and he resigned from the course. He had found a second career that was to make this unassuming, modest Midwesterner world-famous.

Life’s Work

Prior to the late 1930’s, little knowledge had been factually established regarding human sexuality. Sigmund Freud (1856-1939), the founder of psychoanalysis, had studied the sexual lives of largely upper-class Viennese women. Havelock Ellis (1859-1939) had corresponded concerning sexual behavior with upper-class British men. In 1915, an American physician, M. J. Exner, had sent one thousand male college students questionnaires about their sex lives. By 1938, nineteen different studies on human sexual behavior had been reported, all of them sketchy in their topics and inadequate in their methodology.

Kinsey was particularly appalled by Freud’s moralistic judgments regarding masturbation, which the Austrian condemned as infantile and neurotic. Instead, Kinsey made one principle clear above all others throughout his sexual investigations: As a scientist, he registered no objection to any kind of sexual behavior in which a subject might be involved. This written statement to a student was typical:

I am absolutely tolerant of everything in human sex behavior. It would be impossible to make an objective study if I passed any evaluation pro or con on any sort of behavior. . . . Moreover, . . . I have absolutely preserved the confidence of all individual records. . . .

In the early 1940’s, Kinsey recruited three able assistants for what was to be incorporated as the Institute for Sex Research. His chief aide was Wardell Pomeroy, a psychologist trained in penal work, who conducted approximately eight thousand sex history interviews to Kinsey’s eighty-five hundred. The group’s statistician was Clyde Martin, recruited from Kinsey’s biology laboratory. Last to be added was anthropologist Paul Gebhard, who often chafed at what he considered Kinsey’s excessively autocratic control of the project. Yet all three lieutenants shared an intense devotion to their arduous work and an admiration for Kinsey’s integrity, energy, and intelligence.

Pomeroy recalls Kinsey as being remarkably warm and generous, radiating sympathetic understanding to interviewees and buying thoughtful and elaborate gifts for staff and their children. He literally worked himself to death, usually beginning his active day by seven in the morning and ending it at midnight or later, six and sometimes seven days a week. He never took a vacation. Of sturdy, stocky build, with his sandy hair like a shock of Kansas wheat, and with extraordinarily penetrating gray-blue eyes, Kinsey often made a profound impression on people. He was never selfish, shallow, cynical, petty, or malicious. He held his staff to the most stringent standards yet found himself unable to delegate important work, even after doctors had warned him of his need to ease the tremendous stress to which his ambitious undertaking subjected him. His grand dream was to...

(The entire section is 3079 words.)