Obituary
11:52 am
Thu July 25, 2013

Pioneering Sex Researcher Virginia Johnson Is Dead At 88

Originally published on Fri July 26, 2013 3:21 pm

Updated 10:52 a.m., 11:33 a.m., 11:53 a.m., 12:11 p.m., and 4 p.m. May be updated further.

Virginia Johnson, one half of the famed Masters and Johnson research team on human sexual behavior, has died at the age of 88, her son Scott tells St. Louis Public Radio.

Johnson was a resident of The Altenheim senior living community in St. Louis. The facility has also confirmed her death.

Her ex-husband and research partner, William Masters, died in 2001. Masters and Johnson did their early work at Washington University in St. Louis, where Masters was a gynecologist at the School of Medicine. Later, they opened an independent research facility near the medical school campus. 

The duo published the groundbreaking, and bestselling, book "Human Sexual Response" in 1966. It was based on observing the way more than 700 men and women, all of whom were volunteers, responded to sexual arousal.

Back at that time, Dr. Alan F. Guttmacher (the Guttmacher Insitute now bears his name) wrote in a New York Times piece that the book written by his "good friends" built on the work of Dr. Alfred Kinsey, but took it a step further:

"Human Sexual Response" is a valuable book. Alfred C. Kinsey and his associates some years ago pioneered the study of human sexual response through the case-history method, that is, what their sample did. Masters and Johnson pioneer the technique of observing, recording and measuring what the sample does, and how it does it. Both contributions are subject to the same question: How applicable are findings and conclusions based on a restricted, atypical study universe to a large, unselected universe? The Masters-Johnson study interposes an additional question, the weight of the modifying factors of nonspontaneity and laboratory environment. Nevertheless, a scientific study of human sexuality needs to be begun, and we owe a debt to both groups for having cracked the armored barrier of scientific reticence, taboo and prudery.

In a 1994 New York Times interview together, Johnson was blunt when talking about the impact of their own work:

Despite the proliferation today of men and women involved in sexual research, therapy and advice, Ms. Johnson said it was still rare to find a person "who doesn't know who we are."

"Unless they're under 30," Dr. Masters interjected.

"No, even then, there are the college textbooks," she said. "We are like Kleenex is to tissue."

Dr. Robert Kolodny worked closely with the duo for nearly 25 years as the associate director of the Masters and Johnson Institute, and co-authored 10 of their books.

"She was an exceptionally bright woman with a real creative streak that may have been fueled in part by not having come up through the traditional medical ranks. So her thinking was somewhat outside the box. That approach was useful in quite a few different arenas, and I know that it played an important part in the way they shaped the sex therapy program. From the springboard of their anatomy and physiology laboratory work to the crucible of working with people clinically, that's a big gap. You can't always easily make that leap. She brought some insights that were very important to that."

In 2009, St. Louis Public Radio's Don Marsh, host of our talk show St. Louis on the Air, talked with investigative reporter and author Thomas Maier about his book, “Masters of Sex: The Life and Times of William Masters and Virginia Johnson, the Couple Who Taught America How to Love."

While Masters was the star, Maier argues, Johnson was responsible for their success.

"She was the one who convinced so many women to be volunteers in this work," he told Marsh. "She's the one whose native understanding of human nature about sexuality - because she took all the histories from patients - led to the therapy that was remarkably successful. Masters was forever indebted to her."

Thomas Maier - 2009 Interview with Don Marsh on St. Louis On The Air by St. Louis Public Radio

A television show, called "Masters of Sex," based on the work and lives of Masters and Johnson, is set to debut on Showtime in September.

Follow Kelsey Proud on Twitter: @KelseyProud

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