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Masters, William Howell and Johnson, Virginia Eshelman

MASTERS, William Howell, and Virginia Eshelman JOHNSON

MASTERS, William Howell (b. 27 December 1915 in Cleveland, Ohio; d. 16 February 2001 in Tucson, Arizona), and Virginia Eshelman JOHNSON (b. 11 February 1925 in Springfield, Missouri), sex researchers and therapists whose jointly written best-seller, Human Sexual Response (1966), provided popular yet empirically rigorous scientific support for the sexual revolution of the late 1960s and early 1970s.

Masters, the son of Francis Wynne Masters and Estabrooks Taylor, graduated from the Lawrenceville School, Law-renceville, New Jersey, in 1934 and received a B.S. degree from Hamilton College, Clinton, New York, in 1938. When he was a medical student at the University of Rochester School of Medicine and Dentistry, Masters's mentor was the anatomist and endocrinologist George Washington Corner (1889–1981). Corner had discovered the hormonal basis of menstruation in 1928, co-discovered the hormone progesterone in 1929, and chaired the National Research Council's Committee for Research in Problems of Sex from 1947 to 1956. After receiving his M.D. degree in 1943, Masters moved to St. Louis, Missouri, where he did a series of internships and residencies in obstetrics, gynecology, pathology, and internal medicine at St. Louis Maternity Hospital and Barnes Hospital. In 1947 he joined the clinical faculty of obstetrics and gynecology at the Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis and established a private practice in gynecology. Influenced by the work of Alfred C. Kinsey, Masters began conducting sex research under laboratory conditions at Washington University in 1954.

Virginia Eshelman was the daughter of Hershel Eshelman, a conservative farmer, and Edna Evans, a Republican committeewoman. She became proficient at piano and voice as a child, skipped two grades, and graduated from the public high school in Springfield, Missouri, in 1941. Raised to believe that marriage and children were the ultimate goal of every woman, she had two early short-lived marriages, the first in the early 1940s to a Missouri politician, which lasted two days, and the second to an attorney. From 1941 to 1947 she attended Drury College in Spring-field, the University of Missouri at Columbia, and the Kansas City Conservatory of Music, but never earned a degree. She made her living as a country singer, a mezzo-soprano in a vocal quartet, an insurance clerk, a business reporter, and a market researcher. In 1950 she married her third husband, the bandleader George Johnson, with whom she had two children. They divorced in 1956, and shortly afterward she applied for a clerical job at Washington University. About that time Masters was seeking a woman to interview volunteers for his research. Despite Johnson's lack of formal credentials, he hired her as his assistant on 2 January 1957, because of her maturity, her practical expertise in psychology, and the fact that she was a mother.

With funding from the United States Institutes of Health (now the National Institutes of Health), for the next nine years Masters and Johnson recorded photographic, electrocardiographic, electroencephalographic, biochemical, metabolic, and other scientific data on hundreds of paid volunteers masturbating and copulating in their laboratory. In 1964 in St. Louis, they cofounded the Reproductive Biology Research Foundation, which they renamed the Masters and Johnson Institute in 1973. They described and analyzed the sex act in four chronological phases: excitement, plateau, orgasm, and resolution. After writing only a few professional journal articles, they published their results as a book, Human Sexual Response. Released on 18 April 1966, it sold more than 300,000 hardcover copies in the next four years. The book fostered a new frankness about sex, a willingness to discuss it openly in mixed company, and a relaxing of social inhibitions that eventually led to the publication of such popular manuals as Alex Comfort's Joy of Sex (1972).

Masters and Johnson always claimed that they wrote Human Sexual Response for a medical and scientific audience, but that assertion could be questioned. Its publisher was Little, Brown and Company, a prominent commercial trade publisher that did not specialize in medical books. Although it was advertised originally only to the medical and scientific community, the book immediately crossed over to the general public and became a best-seller. There is strong prima facie evidence that its popular appeal was planned. Several factors distinguish Human Sexual Response from most medical books. It contains a glossary, useful and typical in popular medical works but unnecessary and rare in works for physicians and scientists. Its illustrations are noticeably less detailed than those in most medical texts. It contains some peculiar euphemisms and neologisms, such as "automanipulation" for masturbation, which may reflect a superficial attempt to avoid the appearance of targeting prurient book buyers. The book's language is unadorned and technical, but its nontechnical style is readily accessible to intelligent general readers.

Critics applauded Human Sexual Response, scientists praised its originality and thoroughness, and physicians and psychologists welcomed its insights into their clinical practices. Its descriptions helped married couples better understand each other's physical and psychological feelings. The book's only significant attackers were religious moralists, who accused Masters and Johnson of trivializing, dehumanizing, despiritualizing, and demystifying sex. Human Sexual Response superseded both "Kinsey Reports," Sexual Behavior in the Human Male (1948), and Sexual Behavior in the Human Female (1953). Its main advance over these earlier studies was that Kinsey only interviewed his subjects, but Masters and Johnson actually observed human sexual action and measured its phenomena. Their perspective was quantitative, physiological, and psychological, while Kinsey's was qualitative and sociological.

Besides their laboratory research, Masters and Johnson were concerned with clinical therapy and psychological healing. In 1959 they began to develop a method of sexual counseling that emphasized the teamwork of a male therapist, a female therapist, and the sexually dysfunctional couple, integrating medical diagnosis, laboratory tests, and round-table discussion. Masters and Johnson preferred a two-week program of co-therapy, with a five-year follow-up. They described this program in their second book, Human Sexual Inadequacy (1970). Masters and Johnson also wrote The Pleasure Bond (1975), Homosexuality in Perspective (1979), Textbook of Sexual Medicine (with Robert C. Kolodny, 1979), Human Sexuality (1982), Masters and Johnson on Sex and Human Loving (1986), Crisis: Heterosexual Behavior in the Age of AIDS (1988), Biological Foundations of Human Sexuality (1993), and Heterosexuality (1994).

Masters and Johnson married in 1971, following Masters's divorce from his first wife, Elisabeth Ellis, with whom he had two children. They divorced in 1993, but the divorce did not end their professional partnership. Masters married his third wife, Geraldine Baker Oliver, the same year. He closed the Masters and Johnson Institute when he retired in 1994. Masters died at the Tucson Medical Center Hospice from complications of Parkinson's disease.

Vern L. Bullough, Science in the Bedroom (1994), is the standard work on the history of sex research in the United States and includes a study of Masters and Johnson. The feature stories on Masters in Newsweek (10 June 1966) and Life (24 June 1966) provide interpretations of the impact of Human Sexual Response. An obituary of Masters is in the New York Times (19 Feb. 2001).

Eric v. d. Luft

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