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Obituary of Virginia E. Johnson: Half of the team that lessened sexual taboos

Virginia Johnson Masters
Martin Schweig photo

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, July 26, 2013 - Mary Virginia Masters, known from her work as Virginia E. Johnson, spent 35 years as half of a sex research team that was internationally lauded and sometimes castigated for exposing bedroom secrets while reassuring people that sex is normal and that their sex lives could get better through therapy. Ms. Masters died Wednesday (July 24, 2013). She was 88.

Before she gained fame as a revolutionary sex researcher alongside Dr. William H. Masters, Ms. Masters was a Missouri farm girl who dreamed of becoming an opera star. Her college attendance was incomplete, she was a twice-married young mother, and she worked short-term at jobs far afield of the groundbreaking research for which she and her future husband would become renowned.

“(Virginia was) a strong, independent person who lived life on her terms,” said Dave Harlan, Ms. Masters’ attorney.

Ms. Masters died at St. Louis Altenheim in St. Louis of complications from heart disease and other illnesses she had suffered for some time said her son, Scott Johnson. She had previously lived in the Central West End and University City. Her services will be private.

Sexual healing

Her life as a household name began in the 1950s when she became half of the research team of Masters and Johnson.

Dr. Masters was an obstetrician and gynecologist on the faculty of the Washington University School of Medicine who did his early research on sex hormones. In 1954, the university permitted him to begin researching sexuality full-time.

In 1957, Ms. Masters was taking classes at the university and looking for work when Dr. Masters asked her to become his research assistant. They married in 1971 and divorced in 1991.

They began their work on the university campus and later formed their own entity, the Reproductive Biology Research Foundation. It was later renamed the Masters & Johnson Institute. Dr. Masters retired and closed the institute in 1994.

She had no background in the field, but she had something that was more important.

“She was tremendously bright and possibly brilliant,” her son said, “and she had a great deal of empathy for people. She would listen.”

As a full-fledged partner with Dr. Masters, Ms. Masters listened as the two conducted their original studies through interviews with nearly 800 people. They picked up where Alfred C. Kinsey left off with the sexual studies program he launched in 1938. While Kinsey’s primary tool was surveys, they recorded what they observed and measured individuals’ sexual arousal on monitoring equipment.

The subjects of the investigations included prostitutes and surrogate partners. An intensive, short-term therapy program – about three hours a day for two weeks – was developed from the findings. The therapy reportedly had an 80 percent success rate that endured for at least five years.

Joy of sex

The duo’s work was done in virtual obscurity, by choice, until they released their findings in a tome that shocked the public’s sensibilities.

“Human Sexual Response was published in 1966, the same year that ABC television sitcoms, The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet, and The Donna Reed Show, ended long runs. Like all other shows of that era, husbands and wives were not shown sleeping together. Masters and Johnsons’ new book sought to decrease such behavior in real bedrooms.

The book, written for professionals, was described by Ms. Masters in a 2001 St. Louis Post-Dispatch story as, “a textbook on physiology and anatomy and as dry as dishwater.” Nevertheless, the book flew off the shelves and couples from around the world sought their help.

“It was purchased because the need was so great,” Ms. Masters said.

They followed up with “Human Sexual Inadequacy” in 1970. The two books sold more than a half-million copies. Their third book, “The Pleasure Bond: A New Look at Sexuality and Commitment,” with Robert J. Levin, was written more in laymen’s terms. It was published in 1975.

“She was very pleased with the work embodied in these landmark books – the early work that really changed the way people look at the study of sex,” Johnson said. “It was a really substantive and game-changing contribution to the canon of sexual medicine.”

Their work was based on a simple premise, espoused by Ms. Masters in a 1997 Post-Dispatch article: “If you don't know what's happening when things go right, you can't ask for help when things go wrong."

In 1979, they wrote “Homosexuality in Perspective.” In the late ‘80s, with Robert C. Kolodny, they wrote “Masters and Johnson on Sex and Human Loving and Crisis: Heterosexual Behavior in the Age of AIDS.” The book was widely panned for its overall view of the epidemic, but they were later vindicated on their primary assertion claimed in the book’s title.

"I'd love to have been doing ‘Joy of Sex’ books – or at least people books – all along," Ms. Masters told the Post-Dispatch in 1994, “but I've been a member of a team committed to science."

The accidental researcher

Mary Virginia Eshelman was born in Springfield, Mo., on Feb. 11, 1925, the older of Harry Hershel Eshelman and Edna Evans Eshelman’s two children. The family moved to Palo Alto, Calif., when Ms. Masters was 5. They returned to Missouri in time for her to graduate at 16 – she skipped two grades – from high school in Golden City, Mo., a minuscule farming community about an hour’s drive from Springfield. After graduating, she attended Drury College in Springfield and studied briefly at Stephens College.

She played piano and was a talented mezzo-soprano. During her college days, she sang at political functions in nearby Jefferson City. She once declared that singing opera was the only thing she had ever wanted to do.

In 1947, at age 22, she married a 43-year-old attorney, Ivan L. Rinehart. They met at the state insurance department in Jefferson City where both worked; she was a secretary. She wanted a family; he did not. The compromise was a move to St. Louis because she preferred the big city. The couple soon divorced anyway.

She went to work for the St. Louis Daily Record. A friend at the newspaper introduced her to George Virgil Johnson, who was studying engineering at Washington University and was the bandleader at a local jazz club. They married in June of 1950 and soon had two children. After they divorced in 1956, she returned to college, this time at Washington University.

“I opted to go back to school instead of continuing with a musical career because I thought it would take me away from the children,” she said in a 1995 Post-Dispatch interview. “Little did I know that I would probably be with the kids a lot more if I had stayed with music rather than what I did.”

What she did was work seven days a week doing sexual research and therapy and becoming one of history’s most well-known names.

She received an honorary doctorate from the University of Louisville in Kentucky.

Despite it being nearly 50 years since the world was introduced to Masters and Johnson, interest in them remains strong. The cable network Showtime will debut Masters of Sex in September. The series about their lives is based on the 2009 Thomas Maier book of the same name. Lizzy Caplan will play Ms. Masters; Michael Sheen will play Dr. Masters, who died in 2001.

Ms. Masters was preceded in death by her parents and brother, Larry Eschelman. 

In addition to her son, her survivors include her daughter, Lisa Young, both of St. Louis, and two grandchildren.

If desired, memorials may be sent to the Natural Resources Defense Council http://www.nrdc.org/.

Gloria S. Ross is the head of Okara Communications and AfterWords, an obituary-writing and production service.

Gloria S. Ross is the head of Okara Communications and AfterWords, an obituary-writing and design service.

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