Alfred Charles Kinsey was born June 23, 1894 in the industrial, poverty stricken town of Hoboken, New Jersey. He was the eldest of three children. His father was an engineering professor and a self-ordained Methodist preacher. His parents strictly prohibited any discussion of sexuality at home and forbade Alfred from speaking to girls outside of school. His family was poor for most of his childhood and lived in an overcrowded cold-water tenement building. He was a sickly child, suffering from rheumatic fever, typhoid fever, and rickets which resulted in a minor curvature of his spine which prevented him from getting drafted during WW I (Jones, 27).
Kinsey and the Age of Reform
It is important to understand the face of poverty in turn of the century America. As a result of the Industrial Revolution, large waves of immigrants and the working-class lived in over-crowded neighborhoods. Housing conditions were rough, disease was rampant. Entire families would live in a ramshackle one-room apartment with no hot water and no electricity. Due to the governmental and religious prohibition of birth control and any information pertaining to birth control, families often had many children and not enough resources to take care of them. There was a high incidence of infant and child mortality, as well as high maternal mortality rates. The dismal squalor of these neighborhoods is documented by Jacob Riis (1849 – 1914) in his photojournalistic exposé How the Other Half Lives: Studies Among the Tenements of New York published in 1891 (Riis).
Many kinds of activists arose from poverty-stricken backgrounds. One example is Margaret Sanger (1879 – 1966) who spearheaded the grassroots birth control movement. She was a nurse in the Lower East Side of Manhattan (just across the river from Hoboken). She had witnessed the spread of preventable diseases due to malnutrition and poor living conditions, as well as watching women die from self-induced abortions. She published pamphlets with information on birth control methods and, as a result, was arrested and charged with violating postal obscenity laws. Sanger coined the term “birth control” and founded the American Birth Control League (which became Planned Parenthood in 1942) (Steinem).
The Rockefeller Foundation was instrumental in early sex research. In 1921, it funded the Committee for Research in Problems of Sex, which sponsored studies spanning such diverse topics as illegitimacy, prostitution, abortion, and sexual practice of regular citizens (Cocks 48). The foundation also helped Sanger fund the first birth control clinic in America, as well as funding research into the chemical composition of spermacides (Bullough, Science 135).
As Kinsey was growing up, America was the midst of social reform. The Industrial Revolution of the 19th century had brought about exploitation of labor and the working class. Progressivism of the early 1900s was a social reform movement which came from both the grassroots activists and the President, Theodore Roosevelt (1888 – 1919, President from 1901 – 1909), who instituted many new laws and policies during his administration. There were reforms in labor and worker’s rights, child labor laws, women’s suffrage, and birth control rights, all of which left a lasting mark on America. Riis brought about housing reform thus improving the lives of immigrant families. Sanger fought the system and won the right to distribute birth control (Link, 118).
Even early cinema played its part in educating the public. Lois Weber (1881 – 1939), one of the few female directors of that era, directed Where Are My Children?, a film which candidly discusses abortion and birth control (Weber). Charlie Chaplin (1889 -1977) created his Tramp character, which embodied the poverty he grew up in as a child in London. His portrayal of living conditions in The Kid is a realistic depiction of the poverty in that era (Chaplin). It comes across as a moving picture version of Riis’ book.
Kinsey’s Early Work
Kinsey rebelled against his father, who wanted him to study engineering, by studying Biology instead. He graduated from Bowdoin College and got his graduate degree from Harvard in 1919. His doctoral thesis was on gall wasps, in which he took 26 detailed measurements on the physical variations of hundreds of thousands of specimens. Eventually, he collected about five million gall wasps, which are now housed in the American Museum of Natural History in New York. His classmates called him “the next Darwin” (Biography).
In 1920, Kinsey moved to Bloomington, Indiana and worked as an assistant professor of entomology. That same year he met Clara Bracken McMillan, whom he married the following year. Kinsey wrote many books before he went into sex research: first was a high school textbook, An Introduction to Biology, in which he spoke out strongly in favor of Darwin’s theory of natural selection (1926, one year after the Scopes Monkey Trial). Then Kinsey published his magnum opus on gall wasps, The Gall Wasp Genus Cynips: A Study in The Origin of Species (1929). Kinsey’s second work on gall wasps, The Origin of Higher Categories in Cynips was published in 1935. That same year Kinsey wrote his first paper on sex, Biological Aspects of Some Social Problems, for an Indiana University faculty discussion group (American Experience).