Sunday, June 7, 2009
Vote for Virginia? St. Louis Mag Polls on Whether to Give Johnson an Honorary Degree for Her Landmark Research at Washington University
ANALYSIS: In its current June issue online, St. Louis Magazine is taking a poll of its readers as to whether Virginia Johnson should be given an honorary degree for her landmark work with Dr. William Masters at Washington University's Medical School. For a decade, Masters and Johnson, with the approval of University Chancellor Ethan Shepley, conducted the largest sex experiment in U.S. history, blazing the trail for medicine involvement today in helping patients with sexual problems. This research and their resulting sexual therapy -- repeated by medical schools and therapist around the world -- made Masters and Johnson famous. Undoubtedly it's one of the most significant -- if not, THE most significant and impactful scientific research -- ever conducted at Washington University in St. Louis. Unlike Indiana University, where the Kinsey Institute remains today, the politics of Washington University essentially pushed Masters and Johnson out of the university in the 1960s, compelling them to set up their own institute literally across the street. Some doctors were appalled by their work, with many feeling today that Masters and Johnson's sex research was an embarrassment for their medical school.In doing my research, I was quite surprised to learn of Washington University's rather odd and strangely anti-intellectual stance regarding Masters and Johnson even today. On their website, there is virtually no mention of them in recalling the school's history. Several people at Washington University told me of the school's antipathy towards Masters and Johnson. I was never able to figure out why this is so, but I was convinced by several people -- including Masters' family and friends -- that this was so. Virginia is rather prosiac about the school's reaction but she's been more than familiar with it for years. I think she's flattered that some friends and former colleagues of her think that Washington University should consider an honorary degree for her.
For my own part, I did contact three separate organizations at Washington University about appearing there to talk about my new biography of Masters and Johnson and their legacy, but they all took a pass after some apparent debate. It was too strange for me to decipher, so I instead talked about my bio at Left Bank Books, the city's premier independent bookstore.
Of course, when I was asked in several media interviews about it, I said I firmly support those who believe that Virginia Johnson, now at age 84, should be given an honorary degree at Washington University. As my book makes clear, Virginia is arguably the most significant figure in medicine's understanding of female sexuality because of her ability to help Dr. Masters succeed in convincing some 700 people to be observed and studied having sex in their medical lab at Washington University. Perhaps equally significant, Virginia was the key figure in coming up with Masters and Johnson's extraordinarily effective sexual therapy that was adopted by doctors, psychiatrists and other therapists around the world. Virginia's story is like a modern-day Pygmalion story, of a twice-divorced mother of two who went back to college seeking a degree and instead got swept up in the extraordinary research with Masters that changed our culture and medicine's understanding of human sexuality. It seems only right that Washington University -- which last year gave an honorary degree to conservative gadfly Phyllis Schafly -- should award recognition to one of America's most remarkable women in medicine ever.