Sexual Teachings of William Masters and Virginia Johnson Part 1

About the husband and wife scientific research team William Masters and Virginia Johnson, biography and history of their sexual teachings.


WILLIAM H. MASTERS (1915- ), U.S., and VIRGINIA E. JOHNSON (1925- ), U.S.

Masters and Johnson are a husband-wife team who met on the job at the Reproductive Biology Research Foundation in St. Louis, where they were engaged in studying how people reach orgasm.

Dr. William H. Masters, balding and soft-spoken, was born in Cleveland of moderately well-to-do parents. He went to Lawrenceville Preparatory School, then to Hamilton College, from which he received a B.S. in 1938. At the University of Rochester School of Medicine and Dentistry, while doing a lab project, he first became interested in sex research. The lab was run by Dr. George Washington Corner, a specialist in sex, and Masters was trying to compare the estrous cycle of the rabbit with that of the human female. But he ran into a roadblock; not enough was known about the human female, though plenty was known about the female rabbit. He mentioned this to Corner and suggested that he specialize in the study of human sexuality, but Corner, aware of the puritanical attitudes of the time, warned Masters to wait until he was 40 years old, with a reputation in another field, and with the sponsorship of a major institution.

Masters heeded the advice. He got married, had children, and pursued a medical career in obstetrics and gynecology. Between 1948 and 1954, he published 25 medical papers, 14 of them about hormone replacement therapy for aging and aged women. He was constantly reminded of what he wanted to do, because he couldn't properly treat his patients' sexual problems. Not enough was known about normal male and female responses. When he was 38--two years before Corner's suggested age of 40--he was ready to begin studying male and female masturbation and coitus in human being, and he needed a female assistant to conduct interviews.

That assistant turned out to be Virginia Johnson, a divorcee who satisfied Masters's requirements: "I was looking for a mature woman who had a keen interest in people and who knew where babies came from." Johnson's empathy and flexibility more than made up for her lack of academic qualifications (she had no college degrees though she had worked in advertising research and administration).

She says that when she was a child, she used to "sneak the directions on products for hygiene and anatomy out of the drugstore." She feels this "may have been the origin of my willingness to enter research." Born in the Missouri Ozarks, she was a music student at Drury College and later went to Missouri University, where she "discovered sociology and psychology." She married in 1950, had two children, then separated from her husband.

Clear-sighted and unprejudiced, she is a woman with dark eyes and a sensual face who speaks in flowing, graceful sentences. She and Masters, who were married in 1972 (the year Masters divorced his first wife), seem to think together, often finishing each other's sentences.

The program, considered a shocking innovation, included the physiological study of women as they reached for and attained orgasm in a laboratory. The laboratory contained a bed, monitoring equipment like electrocardiograph machines, cameras, and an artificial coition machine--a real shocker. The machine featured a transparent, hollow, penis-shaped probe run by a motor, lighted and fitted with a movie camera; its length, depth, and frequency of thrust were adjustable by the human subject. The camera recorded changes in the vagina and was useful in studying the effects of contraceptives.

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