When Vern Bullough was asked what launched him into the field of sexual history 50 years ago, he quipped, "I blame it all on my mother-in-law."
His future wife's mother had abandoned her family to live in a committed relationship with another woman -- a scandalous event for Salt Lake City in the mid-1940s.
Bullough, then a teenager, was "more or less goggle-eyed" when he met them, but quickly quit gawking and began educating himself. He plied the two women with questions about homosexuality, soaked up what few books he could find on the subject and got to know their lesbian and gay friends.
Bullough, 77, who died of cancer June 21 at his Westlake Village home, eventually channeled his curiosity into a career as one of the most prolific scholars of sex, who wrote, co-wrote or edited nearly 50 books on topics ranging from prostitution to transgenderism.
For The Record
Los Angeles Times Tuesday July 04, 2006 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 2 inches; 91 words Type of Material: Correction
Bullough obituary: The obituary of sex historian Vern Bullough in Sunday's California section incorrectly stated that an interviewer for the online magazine Gay Today asked Bullough to comment on rumors that he must be a cross-dresser because of his strong interests in the transgender community. The interview, and Bullough's quoted response, should have been credited to Helen Boyd on her blog (en)Gender. The story also said Bullough moved to Los Angeles in 1959 to teach history at Cal State Northridge. The school was then known as San Fernando Valley State College.
"We have lost the most important historian of our field," said Eli Coleman, a past president of the Society for the Scientific Study of Sexuality, who directs the human sexuality program at the University of Minnesota medical school.
"It would be very hard to find somebody that had so extensively studied so many areas within sexuality," Coleman added. "Vern was all over the field -- not in a superficial way but in a very deep way."
He literally had an encyclopedic knowledge of sexual history. With his late wife, Bonnie, a noted nursing educator and sociologist, he wrote "American Sexuality: An Encyclopedia" (1994), a standard reference work in the field.
His other major books include "Sexual Variance in Society and History" (1976), "Homosexuality: A History" (1979), and "Cross-Dressing, Sex and Gender" (1993), which is used as a textbook in gender-studies programs. His writings on homosexuality have been credited with helping to launch and sustain gay and lesbian history as a legitimate field of study.
Bullough also was a pioneering advocate of civil rights. In the early 1960s, he persuaded the American Civil Liberties Union of Southern California to defend gays and lesbians -- making it the first ACLU chapter in the country to do so.
"He was the one who made the entire ACLU focus on discrimination against gays and lesbians. He was far ahead of everyone," Ramona Ripston, executive director of the ACLU of Southern California, said of Bullough.
Quiet, scholarly and conservative in appearance, Bullough served on the board of the ACLU for many years and was its chairman when the organization was at the forefront of high-profile battles, including the fight to desegregate Los Angeles city schools.
A native of Salt Lake City, he grew up in the Mormon Church but left it when he was a teenager, in large part because he and Bonnie, his high school sweetheart who was also Mormon, thought the church discriminated against blacks. They were married in 1947.
Meeting Bonnie's mother and her mother's partner left a deep impression. "Both of us became fascinated by the topic of homosexuality and lesbianism," Bullough wrote in the 1997 book "How I Got into Sex."
At the University of Utah, where he earned a bachelor's degree in 1951, and later at the University of Chicago, where he earned his master's and doctoral degrees, he wanted to study homosexuality but knew that it was a verboten topic.
Instead, he studied history and became a medievalist with a dissertation on the development of medical education in the Middle Ages. He was hired to teach at Youngstown University in Ohio in 1954.
In 1959 he moved to Los Angeles to teach history at Cal State Northridge. Feeling more confident about his credentials after writing several articles and books on the early history of medicine and nursing, he shifted his academic focus to prostitution and published a book on it -- "The History of Prostitution" -- in 1964. He was officially a sex researcher.
Over the next four decades he wrote voluminously on a wide range of topics, including birth control, pornography and women's history.
In 1976 he collaborated with Dorr Legg and others on "An Annotated Bibliography of Homosexuality," which listed 13,000 works on the subject from around the world. "It was widely recognized as the first massive compilation of information about homosexuality," said Richard Docter, a gender researcher and retired professor of psychology at Cal State Northridge. The landmark compendium helped to encourage serious scholarship on gay and lesbian issues, Docter said.
That same year, Bullough published "Sexual Variance in Society and History," which he considered his most important work. It examined "nonconforming sexuality" from prehistoric times through the 10th century and included material on sexual practices in China, India and the Islamic world.
In "Science in the Bedroom" (1994), which included material on marriage manuals, sex therapy, child sexuality, the impact of birth control on sexual attitudes and free-love theorists, Bullough surveyed the history of sex research.