Virginia Johnson, pioneering sex researcher, dead at 88

Subject of racy Showtime TV series scheduled for September debut. Photo: AP/file*

ST. LOUIS, July 26, 2013 — Noted sex researcher Virginia Johnson died Wednesday of complications from several illnesses at an assisted living center in St. Louis. She was 88. Long part of the fabled “Masters and Johnson” research team, Johnson was regarded for years as an important figure in the so-called “sexual revolution” that took place in the latter half of the 20th century.

“She has one of the most extraordinary lives of any American woman in the 20th century,” said Thomas Maier, author of the 2009 book “Masters of Sex, the Life and Times of William Masters and Virginia Johnson, the Couple Who Taught America How to Love.”

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“She literally came in without a degree and became one of the most well-known female figures in medicine in her time,” Mr. Maier said.

Born in Springfield, Missouri on February 11, 1925, Mary Virginia Eshelman was the daughter of Harry and Edna Eshelman. She dreamed of becoming an opera singer, studying music at Drury University and later touring as a big band-style vocalist during the Second World War.

Unlucky in an early marriage, Mary Virginia married St. Louis-area bandleader George Johnson in 1950, choosing to go by the name of Virginia Johnson for the rest of her life, even though the couple was divorced in 1956.

By now a mother of two, Johnson started working as a secretary in the medical school at Washington University in St. Louis. There, in 1957, she met Dr. William Masters, an obstetrician-gynecologist. He eventually hired her as his assistant for his research into human sexuality studies Washington University.

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Johnson developed an uncanny ability to relate to the subjects of her research and put them at ease, impressing Masters and leading to the formation of the Masters and Johnson research team. Perhaps not surprisingly, the researchers also became lovers during this period, leading to their marriage in 1971. The team eventually decamped from Washington University to establish its own independent Masters and Johnson Institute elsewhere in St. Louis.

The team proved a surprisingly good fit, according to those who knew them. Masters had impeccable academic and research credentials but was somewhat aloof and lacking in people skills.

Maier said it was Johnson who managed to recruit the countless volunteers needed for the studies — graduate students, nurses, faculty wives and other participants for what was almost certainly the largest human sexuality experiment ever in the U.S.

But it was Virginia whose people-skills, particularly with regard to dealing with the real human beings in a sexual research laboratory, who created an environment where Masters’ observations, experiments, and data could produce believable, verifiable results.

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In after-hours research, Masters and Johnson shattered basic precepts about female sexuality, including Freud’s concept that vaginal — rather than clitoral — orgasm was the more mature sexual response for women.

She took the case studies and asked the uncomfortable questions. Hundreds of couples, not all of them married, participated in the observed research.

That research was later discussed in their first book, “Human Sexual Response.” And their later book, “Human Sexual Inadequacy,” explored a therapy they’d developed for men and women with sexual problems.

Both books were best sellers translated into dozens of languages.

At the height of their careers, Masters and Johnson had become international celebrities, the topic of late-night talk show hosts and on the cover of news magazines. But their work had its critics, and it was often frowned upon in some circles in an era when sex was seldom discussed publicly.

Over succeeding decades, their work began to fall out of favor, particularly after the publication of their controversial book with co-writer Robert C. Kolodny, “Crisis: Heterosexual Behavior in the Age of AIDS” in 1988. Among other errors, the book endorsed the notion that AIDS could be spread via mosquito bites and contact with toilet seats that harbored the virus.

As Masters’ health was in decline in the 1990s, and Johnson was caring for him, he announced he was divorcing her, leaving her to pursue a sweetheart of his youth. The Masters and Johnson Institute closed in 1994 after Masters retired. He died in 2001.

Virginia Johnson never remarried. But after the closing of the Institute, she established her own learning center in Missouri, continuing for a time to produce videos and supporting material on sexual dysfunction. Johnson’s son, Scott Johnson, said his mother eventually retired in the 1990s.

Despite various controversies the work of Masters and Johnson, along with that of the even more controversial Kinsey Institute, still fascinates the public, given its key role in helping to demystify many aspects of human sexuality, many of them still taboo in the public forum as late as the mid-20th century. As if to underline the point, Showtime is currently mounting a campaign promoting its new TV series based on Masters’ and Johnson’s lives and research. Entitled “Masters of Sex” and slated to debut in September, the new series is based, at least in part, on Maier’s 2009 book.

Along with her son, Johnson is survived by her daughter, Lisa Young, and two grandchildren. Private funeral arrangements were pending as of this writing.

    —AP contributed to this report.

 * Photo caption: In the above Nov. 7, 1997 photo, Virginia Johnson Masters poses in her office at the Virginia Johnson Masters Learning Center in Creve Coeur, Mo., with some of the 19 publications that she has written or co-authored with her former husband and former partner Dr. William Masters. Virginia Johnson’s son, Scott Johnson, says his mother died Wednesday, July 24, 2013, at a St. Louis assisted living center. She was 88. (AP Photo/James A. Finley, File)


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Terry Ponick

Now writing on investing, politics, music, movies and theater for the Washington Times Communities, Terry was formerly the longtime music and culture critic for the Washington Times print edition (1994-2009) before moving online with Communities in 2010.  



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