Renowned US sex researcher Virginia Johnson dies aged 88

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 27 July, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 27 July, 2013, 3:26am


Sex researcher Virginia Johnson, part of the famed Masters and Johnson team who conducted groundbreaking work on human sexuality, has died in St Louis at the age of 88.

Johnson joined gynaecologist William Masters in 1957 when he was researching human sexuality after she answered an advertisement for an assistant. She worked alongside him for more than three decades as 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 in 1966. Although Masters and 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 Masters and Johnson an institution in American popular culture, being discussed in rapt half-whispers at suburban cocktail parties.

The couple's work was therapeutic as well as scientific. The medical establishment had long treated sexual dysfunctions psychoanalytically, but Masters and Johnson took a more physical approach. They 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.

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, Johnson was precisely what he was looking for: an intelligent, mature woman who could help put his female subjects at ease.

As Johnson used to say, 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 married a lawyer many years her senior. That marriage also ended in divorce. In 1950, she married George Virgil Johnson, a bandleader, with whom she had two children. The couple were divorced in 1956.