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Journal of the History of Sexuality 12.3 (2003) 465-486

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Kinsey's Biographers:
A Historiographical Reconnaissance

James H. Capshew, Matthew H. Adamson, Patricia A. Buchanan, Narisara Murray, and Naoko Wake
Indiana University

Authority must derive from reason, not from position.
—Herman B Wells, 1938 1

FOR ALFRED C. KINSEY, the end came in August 1956. Earlier that year one of his closest associates, Clarence Tripp, made the comment: "Of course now that you're famous, somebody will certainly want to write your biography." Kinsey demurred, snapping, "Nonsense! The progress of science depends upon knowledge. It has nothing to do with personalities." 2 Thus Kinsey pungently reiterated the traditional view that, in the history of science, ideas matter more than the people who develop them.

As the twenty-first century dawns, American society struggles with the sexual taboos unveiled by Kinsey fifty years ago, and scholars still disagree about his legacy. Even the evolutionary ideas of Charles Darwin, Kinsey's Victorian intellectual master, remain the subject of contemporary school board debate after more than a century.

Darwin provided historians with a first-person account of his life through the autobiography he wrote for his grandchildren. 3 But Kinsey left neither autobiography nor memoir, so we have no words from his pen about his life, about the joys and sorrows he experienced, about the vicissitudes of his career as he saw them. What we do have is a mountain of personal and [End Page 465] professional correspondence, the books that he published, and the records of the Institute for Sex Research (ISR) at Indiana University. Oral history interviews and the secondary works of Kinsey's biographers augment such primary sources.

Whether it would have offended his historical sensibilities or not, Kinsey has become the subject of biography—in fact, the pioneering sex researcher has come repeatedly under the literary microscope. Recent historical studies of the man and his time have revealed new information about Kinsey's sexual behavior and focused greater attention on the issue of how his personal life shaped his professional career. Our study of Kinsey's biographers attempts to place their work in historiographical context, a context that is rich and complex. In it we examine the place of scientists' personal lives in their science and the place of science in Western society. We also consider the role of biography in historical understanding and the moral questions associated with knowledge and power. Our goal is to shed light on Kinsey's life and cultural context, on Kinsey as a scientist as well as a person; it is not to add fuel to the persisting fire that surrounds him and his legacy.

At the opening roar of the twenties, Alfred C. Kinsey, an intense biologist from Hoboken, New Jersey, established a new base for collecting gall wasps. One of America's first Eagle Scouts, he found an agreeable home at Indiana University in the wooded hills of Bloomington. When Kinsey joined the IU faculty in 1920, the university was celebrating its centennial year. Headlines reported that American women had finally been given the right to vote after waiting and struggling for over seventy years. Few people on campus took note that a local youth named Hoagy Carmichael had entered the freshman class. Kinsey too might have labored in relative obscurity had his interest remained focused on the taxonomy of gall wasps. But when it shifted to human sexual behavior, the naturalist tromped through more than one hornet's nest in the process of making his research known to the world. In a country formed by revolt and shaped by continuing debate over women's issues, Kinsey's work fomented another upheaval.

In 1938 Kinsey coordinated a marriage course that included frank classroom discussion of sexual behavior. Concerned by the lack of scientific information about human sexuality, Kinsey shifted his activities from teaching about human sexual behavior to studying it. In 1948 he and his colleagues at the Institute for Sex Research published Sexual Behavior in the...


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