Obituary: Virginia Johnson / Masters' collaborator on sex research

Feb. 11, 1925 -- July 24, 2013

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Virginia E. Johnson, a writer, researcher and sex therapist who with her longtime collaborator, William H. Masters, helped make the frank discussion of sex in postwar America possible if not downright acceptable, died Wednesday in St. Louis. She was 88.

Her son, Scott Johnson, confirmed the death, The Associated Press reported.

Masters, who died in 2001, was a gynecologist on the faculty of the Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis when he began his research into human sexuality in the mid-1950s. Ms. Johnson, who joined him in 1957 after answering an advertisement for an assistant, worked alongside him for more than three decades. She was variously his research associate, wife and former wife.

The collaborators burst into public consciousness with their first book, a clinical tome titled "Human Sexual Response." All about sensation, it created precisely that when it was published by Little, Brown in 1966. Although Masters and Ms. Johnson deliberately wrote the book in dry, clinical language to pre-empt mass titillation, their subject -- the physiology of sex -- was unheard of in its day.

The book made the Masters and Johnson team an institution in American popular culture.

Their other books, also published by Little, Brown, include "Human Sexual Inadequacy" (1970); "The Pleasure Bond: A New Look at Sexuality and Commitment" (1974, with Robert J. Levin); "Human Sexuality" (1982, with Robert C. Kolodny); and "Masters and Johnson on Sex and Human Loving" (1986, with Kolodny).

The couple's work was therapeutic as well as scientific. The medical establishment had long treated sexual dysfunctions psychoanalytically, but the Masters and Johnson team took a more physical approach. The couple were credited with helping thousands of men with impotence and premature ejaculation, and thousands of women with difficulty in achieving orgasm, among other problems. In doing so, they helped establish the field of modern sex therapy, training a generation of therapists throughout the country.

The couple's research corrected many long-standing scientific misconceptions and overturned age-old cultural taboos. Much as biologist Alfred C. Kinsey had paved the way for the Masters and Johnson team with his reports on human sexuality in the 1940s and early '50s, the couple in turn helped make possible the mainstream careers of later authorities like Alex Comfort, the author of "The Joy of Sex" (1972), and Ruth Westheimer, the sex therapist and media personality.

More than any investigator before them, the Masters and Johnson team moved sex out of the bedroom and into the laboratory, where it could be observed, measured, recorded, quantified and compared. While Kinsey had relied on interviews and questionnaires to elicit accounts of his subjects' sexual habits, the Masters and Johnson team gathered direct physiological data on what happens to the human body during sex, from arousal to orgasm.

Ms. Johnson was often described in news articles as a psychologist, although in fact she never finished college. When Masters hired her, she was a divorced mother of two who had been a country singer, psychology student and writer. But as he often said, Ms. Johnson was precisely what he was looking for: an intelligent, mature woman who could help put his female subjects at ease.

Mary Virginia Eshelman was born in Springfield, Mo., on Feb. 11, 1925. An accomplished pianist and mezzo-soprano as a young woman, she performed country music under the name Virginia Gibson on a Springfield radio station, KWTO. She studied at Drury College in Springfield and the Kansas City Conservatory of Music and was later a business writer for The St. Louis Daily Record.

As Ms. Johnson said in interviews, she was raised to believe that a woman's goal was marriage, and she took the injunction to heart. When she was very young, she married a Missouri politician; the marriage lasted two days. She later wed a lawyer many years her senior; that marriage also ended in divorce. In 1950, she married George Johnson, a bandleader, with whom she had two children. The couple were divorced in 1956.

For much of their 35-year collaboration, the personal lives of Masters and Ms. Johnson were intertwined. In 1971, they were married in a private ceremony. They divorced in 1993.

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