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Dr. William Masters; Groundbreaking Sexuality Researcher


Dr. William H. Masters, half the Masters and Johnson sex research team who startled but also informed the world with their controversial studies and books over four decades, has died. He was 85.

Masters, who for 22 years was married to his research partner, psychologist Virginia Johnson, died Friday in Tucson, Ariz., of complications of Parkinson's disease.

The groundbreaking researcher had energetically continued his sex education campaign until shortly before his retirement in 1994, when he closed his St. Louis-based Masters and Johnson Institute and moved to Tucson.

Only a few months before then, he had launched a telephone hotline to answer questions about sex, telling a meeting of the American Psychological Assn. in Toronto somewhat sadly that, despite his life's work, information on sexual function was still largely confined to textbooks and therapists' offices.

"So much of sexual disorders and dysfunction is based on ignorance and lack of education," he said. "If I can't get information to the public through professionals, I'll get it to the public myself."

Masters knew whereof he spoke--not only from his research but from the massive reaction to his reports, beginning with that cataclysmic first book, "Human Sexual Response."

Nobody, least of all the authors, expected the impact that first tome would make when it landed in bookstores on April 18, 1966. The 365-page textbook, based on Masters' and Johnson's 11-year study of 382 women aged 18 to 78 and 312 men aged 21 to 89, was written for physicians and behavioral scientists.

But the public snapped it up: The first printing sold out in three days. The "textbook" quickly became a bestseller and was soon published in 10 languages.

And the controversy began. The authors were praised by scientists and educators. They were pilloried by moralists as panderers and pornographers.

Times medical writer Harry Nelson summarized the couple's findings--including their conclusions that menopause should not blunt a woman's sexual capacity, performance or drive, and that aging does not automatically cause male impotence.

"Undoubtedly one of the most controversial research projects ever undertaken," Nelson wrote, "the studies, according to other authorities in the field, represent a pioneering attempt to open to fresh air and light the taboo-laden subject of human sexuality."

Masters, declaring himself "amazed" by the sales and reaction to the book, later said the team received thousands of letters--which they categorized as 8% "drop dead," 22% "we're for you" and 70% requests for help .

Dr. Mary S. Calderone, then executive director of the Sex Information and Educational Council of the United States, particularly praised the study.

"The Masters-Johnson research, I am convinced," she wrote in her analysis, "can help society take a giant step toward the day when human sexuality . . . can be openly and freely taught--to children and young people who need such insight so desperately, and to their parents who need it even more."

Among the serious criticism of the first book was that it dealt with the anatomy and physiology of sexual activity with no attention to the psychological aspect. Just wait, Masters said, and in 1970, he and Johnson published their second book, "Human Sexual Inadequacy." The two volumes remain classics in the study of human sexuality.

Masters and Johnson, in later years with a third author, Robert C. Kolodny, continued to turn out informative, always controversial and always well-read books.

Over the years they were criticized, among other things, for claiming to convert gay subjects to heterosexual sex through therapy and failing to adequately prove their theory that AIDS would run rampant through the heterosexual population. One thing they were never criticized for was describing sex in entertaining or even readable prose.

"I am convinced that the ponderous, obscure style of 'Human Sexual Inadequacy,' like its predecessor 'Human Sexual Response,' is not accidental but purposely contrived so as not to titillate the reader," said Alan F. Guttmacher, a critic for the New York Times.

Born Dec. 27, 1915, in Cleveland, Ohio, William Howell Masters attended prep schools and then Hamilton College in Clinton, N.Y.

He entered the School of Medicine and Dentistry of the University of Rochester, where his studies were interrupted by service in the Navy during World War II. Focused more on research than practicing medicine, he chose the subject--human sexual activity--while performing laboratory work in the anatomy of rabbits' reproductive organs.

Masters determined a course of action that paralleled that of his predecessor--Dr. Alfred C. Kinsey, who published two pioneering statistical studies, "Sexual Behavior in the Human Male" in 1948 and "Sexual Behavior in the Human Female" in 1953 and founded his Kinsey Institute at Indiana University.

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