William Howell Masters (born 1915) was the first to study the anatomy and physiology of human sexuality in the laboratory, and the publication of the reports on his findings created much interest and criticism. Since then, he and his colleague, Virginia Johnson, have become well-known as researchers and therapists in the field of human sexuality, and together they have established the Reproduction Biology Center and later the Masters and Johnson Institute in St. Louis, Missouri.
William Howell Masters was born on December 27, 1915, in Cleveland, Ohio, to Francis Wynne and Estabrooks (Taylor) Masters. He attended public school in Kansas City through the eighth grade and then went to the Lawrenceville School in Lawrenceville, New Jersey. In 1938 he received a B.S. degree from Hamilton College, where he divided his time between science courses and sports such as baseball, football, and basketball. He was also active in campus debate. He entered the University of Rochester School of Medicine and started working in the laboratory of Dr. George Corner, who was comparing and studying the reproductive tracts of animals and humans.
During his junior year in medical school, Masters became interested in sexuality because it was the last scientifically unexplored physiological function. After briefly serving in the navy, he received his M.D. degree in 1943. Masters became interested in the work of Dr. Alfred Kinsey, a University of Indiana zoology professor who had interviewed thousands of men and women about their sexual experiences. Choosing a field that would help him prepare himself for human sexuality research, Masters became an intern and later a resident in obstetrics and gynecology at St. Louis Hospital and Barnes Hospital in St. Louis. He also did an internship in pathology at the Washington University School of Medicine. In 1947 he joined the faculty at Washington and advanced from instructor to associate professor of clinical obstetrics and gynecology. Masters conducted research in the field and contributed dozens of papers to scientific journals. One of his areas of interest was hormone treatment and replacement in post-menopausal women.
By 1954 Masters decided that he was ready to undertake research on the physiology of sex. He was concerned that the medical profession had too little information on sexuality to understand clients' problems. Kinsey had depended on case histories, interviews, and secondhand data. Masters took the next step, which was to study human sexual stimulation using measuring technology in a laboratory situation.
Masters launched his project at Washington University, assisted by a grant from the United States Institute of Health. At first he recruited prostitutes for study, but found them unsuitable for his studies of "normal" sexuality. In 1956 he hired Virginia Eshelman Johnson, a sociology student, to help in the interviewing and screening of volunteers. The study was conducted over an eleven-year period with 382 women and 312 men participating. Subjects ranged in age from eighteen to eighty-nine and were paid for their time. Masters found a four-phased cycle relating to male and female sexual responses. To measure physiological changes, he used electroencephalographs, electrocardiographs, color cinematography, and biochemical studies.
Masters was very cautious and meticulous about protecting the identity of his volunteers. In 1959 he sent some results to medical journals, but continued to work in relative secrecy. After the content of the studies leaked out, the team had difficulty procuring grant money, so in 1964 Masters became director of the Reproductive Biology Foundation, a nonprofit group, to obtain private funds. In November of that same year, Dr. Leslie H. Farber, a respected Washington D.C. psychiatrist, wrote an article in Commentary entitled "I'm sorry, Dear," in which he attacked the "scientizing" of sex. This attack was only the beginning of the criticism the research would receive.
In 1966 Masters and Johnson published Human Sexual Response. In this book, the researchers used highly technical terminology and had their publisher, Little, Brown and Co., promote the book only to medical professionals and journals. Nevertheless, the book became a popular sensation and the team embarked on a speaking and lecture tour, winning immediate fame. As early as 1959 Masters and Johnson had begun counseling couples as a dual-sex team. Believing that partners would be more comfortable talking with a same-sex therapist, the team began working with couples' sexual problems. In their second book, Human Sexual Inadequacy (1970), they discuss problems such as impotence.
Masters divorced his first wife, Elisabeth Ellis, not long after the publication of Human Sexual Inadequacy and married Johnson on January 1, 1971, in Fayetteville, Arkansas. In 1973 they became codirectors of the Masters and Johnson Institute. In 1979 Masters and Johnson studied and described the sexual responses of homosexuals and lesbians in Homosexuality in Perspective. They also claimed to be able to change the sexual preferences of homosexuals who wanted it. Masters also maintained a biochemistry lab and continued to receive fees from a gynecology practice. He retired from practice in 1975 at the age of sixty. In 1981 Masters and Johnson sold their lab and moved to another location in St. Louis. At this time they had a staff of twenty-five and a long list of therapy clients.
Further controversy over their work developed when in 1988 Masters and Johnson coauthored a book with an associate, Dr. Robert Kolodny. The book, Crisis: Heterosexual Behavior in the Age of AIDS predicted an epidemic of AIDS among the heterosexual population. Some members of the medical community severely condemned the study, and C. Everett Koop, then surgeon general of the United States, called Masters and Johnson irresponsible. Perhaps as a result of the negative publicity, the number of clients seeking sex therapy at the institute decreased. In early 1992, Bill Walters, acting director of the institute, announced that Masters and Johnson were divorcing after twenty-one years of marriage—conflict in their ideas about retirement was cited as the reason for the breakup. Masters vowed he would never retire and continued speaking and lecturing at the institute, in addition to working on another book. The divorce ended their work together at the clinic.
For his pioneering efforts in making human sexuality a subject of scientific study, Masters received the Paul H. Hoch Award from the American Psychopathic Association in 1971, the Sex Information and Education Council of the United States (SIECUS) award in 1972, and three other prestigious awards. He belongs to the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS), the American Fertility Society, and several other medical associations.
Robinson, Paul A., The Modernization of Sex: Havelock Ellis, Albert Kinsey, William Masters, and Virginia Johnson, Harper, 1976.
Fried, Stephen, "The New Sexperts," in Vanity Fair, December 1992, p. 132.
"Repairing the Conjugal Bed," in Time, March 25, 1970.