ST. LOUIS – Virginia Johnson, the Missouri farm girl who helped redefine the understanding of human sexuality as half of the husband-wife team whose taboo sex studies in the 1960s turned them into worldwide celebrities and best-selling authors, has died. She was 88.
The pioneering sex researcher died at an assisted living facility in St. Louis on Wednesday after suffering complications from various illnesses, her son Scott Johnson told The Associated Press on Thursday. He said the family was planning a private funeral.
Johnson was in her 30s, a twice-divorced mother of two children, when she went job-hunting at Washington University in St. Louis in the late 1950s, seeking work to support her young family while she pursued a college degree.
She was hired as a secretary at the university's medical school but soon became the assistant and lover of obstetrician-gynecologist William Masters, then co-collaborated on a large-scale human sexuality experiment — a subject all but taboo at the time.
The couple became known for a revolutionary sexual therapy that brought couples from across the country with sexual dysfunction, including celebrities, to St. Louis for their two-week program.
Masters had impeccable academic and research credentials in infertility and hormone replacement therapy — but some described him as aloof and austere, often difficult to approach. That's where Johnson came in.
Johnson had a way of putting people at ease, so much so that with "evangelical-like zeal" she figured out how to get volunteers "to drop their pants in the name of science," said author Thomas Maier, who wrote a 2009 book about the couple.
Johnson recruited graduate students, nurses, faculty wives and other participants for what Maier described as the "biggest sex experiment in U.S. history."
The late-hours research, first on the medical school campus and later at a nearby building, shattered basic precepts about female sexuality, including Freud's concept that vaginal — rather than clitoral — orgasm was the more mature sexual response for women.
Johnson took the case studies and asked the uncomfortable questions. Hundreds of couples, not all of them married, would participate in the observed research.