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Alfred Kinsey
Dr. Kinsey interviewing a respondent to his survey.
June 23, 1894
Hoboken, New Jersey,U.S.A.
August 25, 1956
Bloomington, Indiana

Dr. Alfred Charles Kinsey was an American biologist and professor of entomology and zoology who in 1947 founded the Institute for Research in Sex, Gender and Reproduction at Indiana University Bloomington, now called the Kinsey Institute for Research in Sex, Gender and Reproduction. Kinsey's research on human sexuality profoundly influenced social and cultural values in the United States during the 1960s with the advent of the sexual revolution.


Alfred Kinsey was born on June 23, 1894, in Hoboken, New Jersey, to Alfred Seguine Kinsey and Sarah Ann Charles. Kinsey was the eldest of three children. His mother had received little formal education; his father was a professor at Stevens Institute of Technology. His parents were rather poor for most of Kinsey's childhood. Consequently, the family could often not afford proper medical care, which may have led to young Kinsey's receiving inadequate treatment for a variety of diseases including rickets, rheumatic fever, and typhoid. These indicate that Kinsey received suboptimal exposure to sunlight (the cause of rickets in those days before milk and other foods were fortified with vitamin D) and lived in unsanitary conditions for at least part of his childhood. Rickets, leading to a curvature of the spine, resulted in a slight stoop that was to prevent Kinsey from being drafted in 1917 for World War I.

Early years

Both of Kinsey's parents were extremely conservative Christians; this left a powerful imprint on Kinsey for the rest of his life. His father was known as one of the most devout members of the local Methodist church and as a result most of Kinsey's social interactions were with other members of the church, often merely as a silent observer while his parents discussed religion with other similarly devout adults. Kinsey's father imposed strict rules on the household including mandating Sunday as a day of prayer (and little else), outlawing social and sexual relationships with girls, and proscribing knowledge of anything remotely sexual including masturbation. Such a strict upbringing was not entirely uncommon at the time. Most college freshmen then had little understanding of even the most basic facts about human sexuality. As a child, Kinsey was forbidden to learn anything about the subject that was to later bring him such fame. Kinsey ultimately disavowed the Methodist religion of his parents and became an agnostic.

Love of nature

At a young age, Kinsey showed great interest in nature and camping. He worked and camped with the local YMCA often throughout his early years. He enjoyed these activities to such an extent that he intended to work professionally for the YMCA after his education was completed. Even Kinsey's senior undergraduate thesis for psychology, a dissertation on the group dynamics of young boys, echoed this interest. He subsequently joined the Boy Scouts of America when a troop was formed in his community. His parents strongly supported this (and joined as well) because at the time the Boy Scouts was an organization heavily grounded on the principles of Christianity. Kinsey diligently worked his way up through the Scouting ranks to become an Eagle Scout in only two years, rather than in the five or six years it took most boys. It seems likely that Kinsey's early exposure to nature was responsible for his interest in entomology, which occupied him for the first half of his career. Despite earlier disease having weakened his heart, Kinsey followed an intense sequence of difficult hikes and camping expeditions throughout his early life.

High school

In high school, Kinsey was a quiet but extremely hard-working student. He was not interested in sports, but rather devoted his prodigious energy to academic work and the piano. At one time, Kinsey had hoped to become a concert pianist, but decided to concentrate on his scientific pursuits instead. Kinsey's ability early on to spend immense amounts of time deeply focused on study was a trait that would serve him well in college and during his professional career. Kinsey seems not to have formed strong social relationships during high school, but he earned respect for his academic ability. While there, Kinsey became interested in biology, botany and zoology. Kinsey was later to claim that his high school biology teacher, Natalie Roeth, was the most important influence on his decision to become a scientist.


Upon graduation at Columbia High School, Kinsey approached his father with plans to study botany at college. His father demanded that he study engineering at Stevens Institute of Technology in Hoboken. Kinsey was unhappy at Stevens, and later remarked that his time there was one of the most wasteful periods of his life. Regardless, however, he continued his obsessive commitment to studying. At Stevens, he primarily took courses related to English and engineering, but was unable to satisfy his interest in biology. At the end of two years at Stevens, Kinsey gathered the courage to confront his father about his interest in biology and his intent to continue studying at Bowdoin College in Maine. His father vehemently opposed this, but finally relented. Accompanying Kinsey's victory, however, came the effective loss of his relationship with his father, which deeply troubled him for years to come.

In 1914 Kinsey entered Bowdoin College, where he became familiar with insect research under Manton Copeland. Two years later, Kinsey was elected to Phi Beta Kappa and graduated magna cum laude with degrees in biology and psychology. He continued his graduate studies at Harvard University's Bossey Institute, which had one of the most highly regarded biology programs in the United States. It was there that Kinsey studied applied biology under William Morton Wheeler, a scientist who made outstanding contributions to entomology. Under Wheeler, Kinsey worked almost completely autonomously, which suited both men quite well. For his doctoral thesis, Kinsey chose to do research on gall wasps. Kinsey began collecting samples of gall wasps with obsessive zeal. He traveled widely and took 26 detailed measurements on hundreds of thousands of gall wasps. His methodology made an important contribution to entomology as a science. Kinsey was granted a Sc.D. degree in 1919 by Harvard University. He published several papers in 1920 under the auspices of the American Museum of Natural History in New York, introducing the gall wasp to the scientific community and laying out its phylogeny.


Kinsey married Clara Bracken McMillen, whom he called Mac, in 1921. They had four children. Their first-born, Don, died from the complications of juvenile diabetes in 1927, just before his fifth birthday. Anne was born in 1924, Joan in 1925 and Bruce in 1928.


Kinsey was featured on the front cover of Time magazine on August 24, 1953. He is depicted alongside "the birds and the bees", a popular euphemism for sexuality.


Upon the completion of his doctorate, Kinsey joined the department of zoology at Indiana University Bloomington in 1920 as an assistant professor. His wife and colleagues referred to Kinsey as Prok (for Professor Kinsey). At Indiana University, the indefatigable Kinsey continued his work on gall wasps, traveling widely over the next 16 years to collect and catalogue specimens. Kinsey was particularly interested in the evolutionary history of the tiny insect, which measures 1-8 millimeters, and published a monograph devoted to the origin of gall wasp species in 1930, The Gall Wasp Genus Cynips: A Study in the Origin of Species, with a second major work in 1935, The Origin of Higher Categories in Cynips.


Kinsey published a widely used high school textbook, An Introduction to Biology, in October of 1926. The book endorsed evolution and unified, at the introductory level, the then separate fields of zoology and botany, overcoming the resistance to their unification that was prevalent at the time.

Human sexual behavior and the Kinsey Reports

Kinsey is generally regarded as the father of sexology, the systematic, scientific study of human sexuality. He initially became interested in the different forms of sexual practices around 1933, after discussing the topic extensively with a colleague, Robert Kroc. It is likely that Kinsey's study of the variation of mating practices among gall wasps led him to wonder how widely varied sexual practices among humans were.

In 1935, Kinsey delivered a lecture to a faculty discussion group at Indiana University, his first public discussion of the topic, wherein he attacked the "widespread ignorance of sexual structure and physiology" and promoted his view that "delayed marriage" (that is, delayed sexual experience) was psychologically harmful. Kinsey obtained research funding from the Rockefeller Foundation, which enabled him to inquire into human sexual behavior through interviews of thousands of subjects.

His Kinsey Reports - starting with the publication of Sexual Behavior in the Human Male in 1948 followed in 1953 by Sexual Behavior in the Human Female - reached the top of bestseller lists and turned Kinsey into an instant celebrity. Articles about him appeared in magazines such as Time, Life, Look, and McCall's. Kinsey's reports, which led to a storm of controversy, are regarded by many as a trigger for the sexual revolution of the 1960s. Indiana University's president Herman B. Wells defended Kinsey's research in what became a well-known test of academic freedom.

Significant publications

  • New Species and Synonymy of American Cynipidae, in Bulletin of the American Museum of Natural History (1920)
  • Life Histories of American Cynipidae, in Bulletin of the American Museum of Natural History (1920)
  • Phylogeny of Cynipid Genera and Biological Characteristics, in Bulletin of the American Museum of Natural History (1920)
  • An Introduction to Biology (1926)
  • The Gall Wasp Genus Cynips: A Study in the Origin of Species (1930)
  • New Introduction to Biology (1933, revised 1938)
  • The Origin of Higher Categories in Cynips (1935)
  • Sexual Behavior in the Human Male (1948, reprinted 1998)
  • Sexual Behavior in the Human Female (1953, reprinted 1998)


Kinsey died on August 25 1956, at the age of 62. The cause of death was reported to be heart disease and pneumonia.


Kinsey's work, often associated with the sexual revolution in the United States in the 1960s, has generated substantial controversy since its publication. Both Kinsey's work and private life have been the subject of an enduring controversy over the study of human sexuality (sometimes called sexology) and the impact of Kinsey's work on sexual morality.

Kinsey's research polarized a segment of society. Many in the Christian Right found their religious and socially conservative views in conflict with Kinsey's methods and underlying principles. They saw his supporters as dissolute libertines and his work as morally corrupting. Even today, Kinsey's name can elicit partisan rancor.

Kinsey's most prominent current detractor is Dr. Judith A. Reisman, who is the head of RSVPAmerica. Reisman alleges that Kinsey and his staff sexually abused children to produce some of the data in the Kinsey Reports. Kinsey Institute director John Bancroft claims that the subject of child/adult sexual interaction was deliberately chosen by Kinsey's opponents to discredit him because of the emotions surrounding it: "In recent years, when there has been anxiety bordering on hysteria about child sexual abuse, often resulting in circumstances where the accused is regarded as guilty until proved innocent, what better way to discredit someone?" The Kinsey Institute maintains that Kinsey never had any sexual interaction with children, nor did he employ others to do so, and that he always interviewed children in the presence of their parents.

The Family Research Council (FRC) has been another notable detractor. The FRC is a religious organization which wields substantial political clout among social conservatives in the United States. The FRC echoes Reisman's claims of child/adult sexual interaction in their video The Children of Table 34, but that issue is not their main focus. The FRC is primarily concerned with Kinsey's work on sexual orientation and homosexuality. Kinsey maintained that people do not clearly fall into the categories of exclusive heterosexuality or exclusive homosexuality, but that most can be placed somewhere between, in a continuum of sexual orientations with homo- and heterosexuality at the extremes and bisexuality at the midpoint. The FRC sees Kinsey's work as a force that seeks to legitimize homosexuality, a sexual orientation the organization strongly opposes.

As a result of the work done by Kinsey and others, the American Psychiatric Association, in 1973, removed homosexuality from its list of mental illnesses, refusing to continue endorsing it as something "odd" or in need of correction.

Aside from criticism of the implications of his research, Kinsey had been rumored to participate in unusual sexual practices. In James H. Jones's biography, Alfred C. Kinsey: A Public/Private Life, Kinsey is described as a bisexual masochist. He is reported to have encouraged group sex involving his graduate students, wife and staff. It is also known that Kinsey filmed sexual acts in the attic of his home as part of his research. Biographer Jonathan Gathorne-Hardy explained that using Kinsey's home for the filming of sexual acts was done to ensure the films' secrecy, which would certainly have been scandalous had the public become aware of them. Some have suggested that the films Kinsey made were not scientific, but pornographic in nature. Jones stated that Kinsey's wife had had sex with other men, but that the couple remained married for 35 years in a relationship that remained sexual until Kinsey became ill near the end of his life. None of these accounts of Kinsey's own sex life are supported by official statements from the Kinsey Institute. Although some of them have been confirmed by independent sources, such as his being bisexual, other claims are in dispute by the Kinsey Institute and others. [1][2]

Kinsey's work continues to elicit controversy decades after his death. His collected data regarding sex and children has led to accusations of child abuse, even though Kinsey obtained the information from interviews with children at least one of whose parents was always present, and from the diaries of a Mr. X, who claimed to have engaged in hundreds of acts of incest and child molestation which he chronicled in explicit detail.

Although the investigation into sexual behavior carried out by Kinsey resulted in an explosion of knowledge about topics previously considered taboo, there are continuing claims that the Kinsey Reports contain statistical and methodological errors. Nonetheless, his data are still widely cited despite questions by some about their validity.

Kinsey in the media

Kinsey's life was the subject of a 2004 biographical film, Kinsey, starring Liam Neeson as the scientist and Laura Linney as his wife, and a 2004 novel by T.C. Boyle, The Inner Circle. PBS also came out with a documentary called Kinsey in 2005 where The Kinsey Institute actually allowed access to many of their files. There is also a musical on the life of Kinsey. Called Dr. Sex, it premiered in Chicago in 2003 (winning seven Jeff Awards) and was produced off-Broadway in 2005.


  • Cornelia Christenson, Kinsey: A Biography, Indiana University Press, 1971
  • Wardell Pomeroy, Dr. Kinsey and the Institute for Sex Research, Harper & Row, 1972
  • James H. Jones, Alfred C. Kinsey: A Public/Private Life, Norton, 1997
  • Jonathan Gathorne-Hardy, Alfred C. Kinsey: Sex the Measure of All Things, London: Chatto & Windus, 1998

See also

External links

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