Virginia Johnson, a prominent sex researcher and half of the renowned Masters and Johnson team, died Wednesday of complications from several illnesses at an assisted living center in St. Louis. She was 88.
Johnson’s contributions have led to such a strong identification with the sexual revolution of the 1960’s that she is remembered today as one of its key figures. By the time she was in her 30’s, she had been divorced twice as was looking after two children.
That’s when she met William Masters, an obstetrician-gynecologist who was performing research in the field of human sexuality. He hired her as his assistant in studies performed at Washington University, and later at the Masters and Johnson Institute in St. Louis.
Masters and Johnson performed research “after hours” together (yes, that is as it implies), and shattered long-held preconceived notions about female sexuality. After becoming lovers, the two wed in 1971, though they divorced 20 years later. They were once famously asked what the secret to their marriage was, and they replied that they never talked about politics.
Still, they made a great team. Masters was an academic and talented researcher, while Johnson amiably recruited countless volunteers in what was the largest human sexuality experiment ever in the U.S.
“Ginny had people skills and a warmth about her, and projected an interest in humanity that was a very good foil to his austere scientist demeanor,” said Dr. Robert Kolodny, who worked alongside the couple for years.
But she also got performed a lot of the research herself. She took on case studies and was often called on to ask “uncomfortable” questions.
Their research was published in the 1966 book Human Sexual Response. They followed up with another in 1970, Human Sexual Inadequacy.
At their height, the two were huge celebrities in pop culture. Their research was often the subject of late-night talk show segments and covered countless magazines.
Virginia Johnson is survived by her son, her daughter, and two grandchildren.
A 12-part series based on Masters and Johnson titled Masters of Sex will premiere on Showtime in September of this year. Michael Sheen stars as William Masters and Lizzy Caplan will star as Virginia Johnson. You can watch the trailer below.