Alfred C. Kinsey (1894–1956)

There is no doubt that Alfred C. Kinsey had a profound impact on the 20th century. A biologist, entomologist, and professor of zoology at Indiana University, Kinsey’s research on the sexual behavior of human males and females in the mid-1930s had a major impact on attitudes, behaviors, and the development of sexology and sexual science as a field of study. His work also had an impact on public policy including the women’s liberation movement, attitudes concerning gays, lesbians, and bisexuals, and sex education in school and home.

The results of Kinsey’s research were published in two reports, Sexual Behavior in the Human Male, which appeared in 1948, and Sexual Behavior in the Human Female, which was published in 1953. The male volume was based on 5,300 histories of American males and the female volume was drawn from 6,700 interviews of women. Both volumes were highly anticipated and they quickly became best sellers. As Time magazine said in 1948, “Not since Gone With the Wind had booksellers seen anything like it. Out less than two months, it had already sold 200,000 copies.”

Of course there were critics, but the first reactions to the reported data were positive. However, the litany of critical objections that focused on the subject matter, the nature of the study, and the validity of inquiring into the topic of sexual behavior in American society was fueled by outrage, and the commentary was often overstated and irrelevant. The whole idea of actually talking about the taboo subject of human sexual behavior in public, and for publication, was new and controversial.

With the publication of the female volume, the reaction of Kinsey’s critics to the research became more vocal. The criticism came from religious, philosophical, literary, and some scientific circles, especially those who refused to accept Kinsey’s explanation for the use of a 100 percent sample in his sampling process. To their credit, the staff of the Kinsey Institute responded appropriately to the concerns about the general application of the data, and in the female volume, adjustments were made to correct for some of the concerns expressed by professionals in the field. In answer to questions about the methodology and the generalizability of the data in the male volume, the staff requested that the American Statistical Association undertake a review of these aspects of the study. The results of this outside review are reported in Cochran, Mosteller, and Tukey’s (1954) monograph, Statistical Problems of the Kinsey Report. In their summary, the review committee commented that “the statistical and methodological aspects of the Kinsey, Pomeroy, and Martin (KPM) work was outstanding in comparison with other leading sex studies... their interviewing was the best.”

Alfred Kinsey, the first scientist to apply the empirical techniques of scientific and statistical research to human sexual behavior, liberalized popular attitudes about sexuality.

Alfred Kinsey, the first scientist to apply the empirical techniques of scientific and statistical research to human sexual behavior, liberalized popular attitudes about sexuality. (Library of Congress)

Kinsey reported descriptive research findings that provide insight into the incidence of each outlet for various groups in society, including gender, age, race, level of education, social class, place of residence, level of religious involvement, marital status, and related issues. A few of the more significant findings reported in these studies included the following:

Professor Kinsey was adamant about the fact that he believed human sexual behavior could be examined and explored by the methods of science just like any other topic or behavior. Of course, in undertaking this endeavor as a pioneer in 1938, it may have dawned on him that the task would not be easy. But his research into human sexuality had a major impact on the 20th century for a variety of reasons:

Funding support for the research project had been provided by the Rockefeller Foundation since the early 1940s. With the publication of the male volume, the Institute for Sex Research, which Kinsey incorporated at Indiana University in 1947, began to receive royalties from the publisher that went toward the support of the research program as well. During subsequent years, additional funds were received from other sources along the way, and with the publication of the female volume that was even more popular, the institute’s financial support appeared to be assured through the mid-1950s.

But pressure was building within the leadership of Rockefeller Foundation to limit or eliminate their support of his research. By August of 1954, the announcement was made that funding for Kinsey’s research project would be terminated as the foundation would be exploring new projects for their support. The loss of this funding was a shock and a challenge to Kinsey, who had become used to this source of funding over the past 10 years. He computed that the institute could survive for a few years on the royalties that would be received for the female volume. In response, he increased the number of lectures on his schedule and he also continued to gather histories, search for funding, and seek other ways to maintain the mission of the institute.

As a biologist and taxonomist, Professor Kinsey viewed sex research as just one more area to explore using the scientific skills he had developed in his work with the gall wasps. As a taxonomist, he saw the value in gathering information about the range of behaviors that may encompass the sexual potential of the human. Professor Kinsey’s interest in the gall wasp was related to his interest in entomology, which he studied under the guidance of Professor Wheeler, and his interest in taxonomy as a methodological approach in biology, which developed in conjunction with his graduate work with Professor M. L. Fernald. In reviewing the literature concerning insects that might serve as a strategic site for a doctoral dissertation, he discovered that the gall wasp species in Europe had been extensively studied, while the research concerning the species found in the United States was quite limited.

This was a graduate student’s dream come true. Certainly, the world of entomology would be hungry for new original research on the Americanized Cynipidae, and Alfred Kinsey was ready to dive into the water. Furthermore, these small bugs lent themselves well to research as “they mate soon after they have emerged (from the gall) and then lay their eggs in the host plant again. Thus within a few days or weeks, sometimes within even a few hours the insect has fulfilled all of its functions and dies,” according to biographer C. V. Christenson. The short life span of the gall wasp is a very convenient situation for research.

One of the more interesting aspects of the American gall wasp has to do with a curious aspect of its reproductive function referred to as alternating generations or the fact that offspring do not resemble their parents. In the case of the gall wasp, one generation may reproduce without sexual union. It appears that this tendency resulted in an inaccurate classification of the species by biologists. As an entomologist and taxonomist, this situation intrigued Kinsey and contributed to his passionate enthusiasm for the collection and classification of the species so he could further document and clarify the relationship between biological classifications and genetic issues in a species. Twenty years later, when his interests turned to human sexual behavior (sometimes referred to as reproduction by biologists), this evolution in his thinking may have its roots in his interests in the tiny gall wasp.

Most authors attribute the immediate cause of Professor Kinsey’s shift in research interest from gall wasps to human sexual behavior as a result of his involvement in the development of a new noncredit course in marriage in the summer of 1938 at Indiana University. Such a course was petitioned by the students, and a group of nearly 100 individual showed up for an informational meeting about the course. As an interdisciplinary course, the faculty for the course was drawn from across seven disciplines; however, due to his take-charge personality and his actual interest in reproduction, sexuality, and marriage, he became the lead faculty member on the project. The course became quite popular, and Kinsey’s lectures were the most interesting and informative of all those offered. As a service to the students, and in an effort to become personally more informed about the concerns and interests of the students, Kinsey began doing interviews with the students in each class.

This practice soon became routine, and in the process Kinsey’s chats with the students became more a matter of taking their sexual histories and an opportunity for him to offer advice and counsel to them as well. During this time, Kinsey also began to read and collect books that addressed all areas of human sexuality. This process of expanding his intellectual horizons and the taking of histories in the marriage course was the catalyst for his next step, envisioning a much larger data collection process that could provide other researchers, educators, and other interested parties with accurate data concerning human sexual behavior. It should also be mentioned that this process was undertaken and carried out with the full knowledge and approval of the administration at Indiana University.

He addressed the issue by establishing and developing his data around a list of what he called sexual outlets. This list included nocturnal emissions (wet dreams), masturbation, petting, premarital sex, marital sex, extramarital sex, animal contacts, homosexual contacts, and contacts with prostitutes. His total concern was with sexual behavior. He also conceived of sexual behavior as falling along a continuum. This is best illustrated by considering what has come to be thought of as the “Kinsey Scale” or the way he and his associates conceived of the expression of homosexual behavior. A scale that ranged from zero (exclusively homosexual behavior) to six (exclusively heterosexual behavior), with three, the midpoint in the scale (bisexual behavior). Of course, as a scientist, he tried to address these and related issues in a nonjudgmental manner. After the publication of his findings, he discovered that his critics were not willing to extend this courtesy to him.

By the late 1930s, Kinsey had made the commitment for the broader study and received encouragement from Dr. Harold Wells, the president of Indiana University, to pursue this project. He then began to develop and put into operation the procedures he would employ to obtain histories from beyond the Indiana campus.

Kinsey was convinced that the interview was a far superior approach to collecting data than other approaches, such as the questionnaire, which he felt promoted lying and false statements. He also saw value in observing behavior, and as the studies developed along with his interviews he took advantage of situations that presented him with the opportunity to observe a broad range of sexual behaviors. With regard to the interviewing process, Kinsey developed a procedure that worked quite well. The interviewers memorized the interview scheduled and practiced on each other until they had total command of the questions. Kinsey had also devised a code sheet and a series of codes that could be used in recording a history. Originally, this fit in a grid format on sheet of paper, although it was expanded to two sheets for more complicated histories. Questions were asked rapidly, and all questions were framed in a positive way so as to reduce a sense of being judged by the interviewer. Questions were also asked directly with no apology for them. It has been noted that the Kinsey team was probably the best trained team to ever collect interview data for a study of sexual behavior. A typical history could be completed in 90 minutes to two hours.

Initially Kinsey handled all of the interviewing tasks; however, by 1943, he took on some assistance. By that time, Clyde Martin, who had been working part time at the institute, joined the staff as a full-time employee, and in February of 1943 Wardell B. Pomeroy was also hired to conduct interviews. Paul H. Gebhard, a Harvard trained anthropologist, was hired in 1946, and the impact of his ideas can be seen in the second Kinsey volume, Sexual Behavior in the Human Female. By the time of Kinsey’s death in 1956, more than 18,000 interviews had been conducted, approximately 8,000 by Kinsey, 8,000 by Pomeroy, and 2,000 by Martin and Gebhard. In his grand plan that was written in the early 1950s, Kinsey had hoped to eventually gather 100,000 histories. He did not come close, but that was not from trying to do so.

Fearful that randomized sample procedures would prove to be problematic due to the subject’s tendency to respond negatively to their invitation to participate or refusal to answer some questions, Kinsey devised a process of contacting groups in which he sought to get 100 percent participation in the research. These groups included social groups, interest groups, fraternities and sororities, community groups, and religious groups. Eventually, homosexuals and prisoners became a focus of study. To catch the attention of the leaders of the various groups, Kinsey would contact them and offer to give a lecture at a meeting of the group at no charge, if the leadership would consent to being interviewed for the study. It was then the leader’s responsibility to get further cooperation for the membership. One hundred percent participation was achieved in 28 percent of all histories collected.

Both of Professor Kinsey’s two most recent biographers, James H. Jones and J. Gathorne-Hardy, report on his bisexuality and his tendency to make films of his staff and others engaged in sexual activity with each other. This activity, which took place at the institute and in Kinsey’s home, was treated as highly confidential by the institute staff during his life. He feared that public knowledge of this activity would short-circuit funding, his research plans, and also impact the collection of additional histories that might be related to future projects planned by the institute.

More recently, with the passing of time, these activities have been viewed from the perspective of history. Some have suggested that it was Kinsey’s strong scientific perspective that demanded that when one studies a topic, it is essential to immerse oneself in the subject matter so as to develop a total understanding of the topic. This approach might include experiential elements as well as nonexperiential approaches. Certainly, by today’s standards, issues related to sexual harassment, coercion, and other concerns would suggest such activity to be inappropriate and a matter of concern.

Alfred Charles Kinsey was born in Hoboken, New Jersey, on June 23, 1894. He was the first child of Alfred Seguine Kinsey, a professor of engineering at Stevens Institute of Technology, and Sarah Ann Charles. A sister, Mildred, was born two years later, and a brother, Robert, was born in 1909. The family was deeply religious and involved in faith-based activities during his childhood and adolescence. During his early years, Alfred suffered from a number of ailments including rickets, rheumatic fever, and typhoid and was confined to bed for some time during this period of his life. One of his biographers notes that later in life he will recall that he did not enjoy the time spent by his family in Hoboken.

When he was 10, his family moved to South Orange, New Jersey, which at the time was a rural area located in the Watchung Mountains near the South Mountain Reservation. It was here that Kinsey developed his love of the outdoors, camping, and hiking that would later play a large role in shaping recreational interests and activities that would be part of his adolescent and adult life. He graduated from Columbia High School in South Orange in 1912. Kinsey’s father, a strong-willed man, insisted that Alfred attend college at Stevens Institute, where he taught, to receive training in mechanical engineering. Young Alfred did study there for two years; however, he transferred to Bowdoin College in Brunswick, Maine, in 1914, where he pursued his study of biology, which was his preference.

He graduated, magna cum laude, with a bachelor of science degree in biology in 1916. In the fall of 1916, Kinsey began his graduate studies in biology at the Bussey Institution for applied biology on the Harvard campus. He completed his studies in 1919 when he was awarded his doctor of science degree. Following a 10-month hiatus, in which Alfred traveled and collected entomological specimens that began to lay the groundwork for what would become his world-class collection of gall wasps, he joined the zoology faculty at Indiana University in Bloomington, Indiana, where he would conduct research and teach until his death in 1956.

Professor Kinsey married Clara Braken McMillan on June 3, 1921, in a small ceremony conducted in the parlor of the bride’s grandparents in Brookville, Indiana. The couple’s honeymoon involved a hiking trip in the White Mountains of New Hampshire. Clara had been a student at Indiana University with a major in chemistry. She graduated with an excellent academic record in June of 1921, skipping her graduation that conflicted with her honeymoon trip. She shared with Kinsey his love of nature, the outdoors, and hiking. The couple had four children: two daughters, Anne and Joan, and two sons, Donald, who died at the age of four, and Bruce the youngest of their children.

Professor Kinsey’s professional life was primarily focused around the Indiana campus. He was a consummate scholar devoting most of his time to his teaching, research, supervision of graduate students, service on faculty committees, professional writing including a textbook and accompanying laboratory manual, and writing reports concerning his research. He enjoyed a weekly social event at his home for colleagues and friends who shared his interest and enthusiasm for classical music. As time would permit, the family would enjoy recreational pursuits around Brown County and travel on vacations during the summers. Once he undertook his study of human sexual behavior, the tasks of giving lectures and collecting interviews from various groups around the country began to consume much of his time. His time from Friday to Monday was given up to these tasks.

His books include An Introduction to Biology (J. B. Lippincott, 1926) and in subsequent revisions over the next 20 years, Field and Laboratory Manual in Biology (J. B. Lippincott, 1927), The Gall Wasp Genus Cynips: A Study in the Origin of Species (Indiana University Press, 1930), Methods in Biology (J. B. Lippincott, 1937, with M. I. Fernald), Sexual Behavior in the Human Male (W. B. Sanders, 1948, with W. B. Pomeroy, C. E. Martin, and P. H. Gebhard), and Sexual Behavior in the Human Female (W. B. Sanders, 1953). His book Edible Wild Plants of Eastern North America (Idlewild Press, 1943, with W. B. Pomeroy and C. E. Martin) is still in use and considered an authoritative source.

If there was one common theme that could be attributed to Kinsey’s life, both professional and private, it would be his proclivity (some say his obsession) to be a collector. This theme is well documented by his biographers. Pomeroy (1972) sees Kinsey’s interest in collecting as the fundamental clue to his character, and Gathorne-Hardy (1998) addresses Kinsey’s “passion for collecting.” Among other things, the list of items collected by Professor Kinsey include the following: Boy Scout badges, recordings of classical music, sheet music, gall wasps, snakes, sexual histories, erotic art, books, films of sexual behavior of all types and species, and knives. He built a credible professional research career based on his collections of gall wasps and sexual histories. The former collection today resides in the Smithsonian, and the sexual histories are carefully stored, secured, and documented in the archives of the Kinsey Institute for Research in Sex, Gender & Reproduction at Indiana University in Bloomington, Indiana, which remains the most obvious memorial to the work of Alfred C. Kinsey. There have been four directors of the institute since Kinsey’s death, and the program has grown and developed along a number of lines over the years, however, always maintaining Professor Kinsey’s original goal to promote and to facilitate the scientific study of human sexuality.

While not perfect, the work of Kinsey and his colleagues have stood the test of time. Even today, more than 50 years after their publication, reading the Kinsey Reports is required reading for those who wish to do sexual science.

Professor Kinsey was adamant about the fact that he believed human sexual behavior could be examined and explored by the methods of science just like any other topic or behavior. Of course, in undertaking this endeavor as a pioneer in 1938, it may have dawned on him that the task would not be easy. His “Last Statement,” written just a few weeks before his death, is reflective of the challenges that he faced and, to some extent, of the joys he might derive from the challenge:

We were warned by one of the wisest of biologists when we undertook this research that if we went ahead with it we would lose friends and caste in biological circles, and we would be faced with legal and social difficulties that would constantly distract us from the actual gathering of data—“but” he added, “there is no area in which research is more needed than this...”

—Howard J. Ruppel


Bullough, V. L. Science in the Bedroom: The History of Sex Research. New York: Basic Books, 1994.

Christenson, C. V. Kinsey: A Biography. Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 1971.

Cochran, W. G., F. Mosteller, and J. W. Tukey. Statistical Problems of the Kinsey Report on Sexual Behavior in the Human Male. Washington, D.C.: American Statistical Association, 1954.

Condon, B. Kinsey. New York: Newmarket Press, 2004.

Gathorne-Hardy, J. Sex the Measure of All Things: The Life of Alfred C. Kinsey. Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 1998.

Himelhoch, J., and S. F. Fave. Sexual Behavior in American Society: An Appraisal of the First Two Kinsey Reports. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 1955.

Jones, J. H. Alfred C. Kinsey: A Public/Private Life. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 1997.

Kinsey, A. C. “Last Statement.” In Kinsey: A Biography. Ed. C. V. Christenson (1971). Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 1956, 220–26.

“Manners & Morals: How to Stop Gin Rummy.” Time magazine, March 1, 1948.,9171,794270,00.html .

Pomeroy, W. B. Dr. Kinsey and the Institute for Sex Research. New York: Harper and Row, Publishers, 1972.

Ruppel, H. J. Alfred C. Kinsey: An Annotated Bibliography. Unpublished manuscript. Mount Vernon, IA: Center for Sexual Growth & Development, 2005.