Whispering Pines: Famous, and Yet Not Fêted

Whispering Pines

To mark the 100th anniversary of Alfred Kinsey’s graduation from Bowdoin in 1916, Professors Jill Smith (German), Marilyn Reizbaum (English; Gender, Sexuality, and Women’s Studies Program), and David Hecht (History) organized a symposium that explored Kinsey’s influence on popular culture and scholarship on human sexuality.

Sixty years after Kinsey’s death, aspects of his life, work, and legacy remain the subject of debate in scientific circles. My initial plan was to write a column to highlight the symposium, but the project grew. After all, Alfred C. Kinsey is perhaps the most famous Bowdoin alumnus that we tend not to talk about. About once every ten years, a story would appear in The Orient, carefully researched by a student who discovers anew the Kinsey who became a household name, and yet whose name is rarely spoken in American households these days.

The first two “Kinsey reports.”

The first two “Kinsey reports.”

The publication of the first two Kinsey reports, Sexual Behavior in the Human Male (1948) and Sexual Behavior in the Human Female (1953), challenged the scientific community and society with what people did, rather than reiterating society’s expectations of what they should do. Kinsey’s impact was not due to the conclusions of his research, but to the very fact that he was investigating human sexuality at all through in-depth interviews and personal sex histories. Much of what Kinsey documented was behavior that had been stigmatized, and often criminalized in mid-twentieth century America. From the publication of the first report to the present day, Kinsey has been somewhat of a Rorschach test. Some see in him a dedicated scientist who revealed unspoken truths and an advocate for greater understanding and tolerance of the range of human sexuality and identity. Others saw in him an academic fraud and a threat to morality and the institution of marriage – an enabler whose work encouraged pornography, promiscuity, and child molestation. The publication of biographies of Kinsey by James Jones (1997) and Jonathan Gathorne-Hardy (1998) and the release of the 2004 movie Kinsey became flashpoints for conflicts that had less to do with the substance of Kinsey’s work than with ongoing disagreements over the nature and direction of social life in America.

The bare outlines of Alfred Kinsey’s life are well known. He had a strict upbringing in Hoboken and South Orange, New Jersey, which gave him limited practice in developing social skills. From what little he revealed about his own childhood, it was not a happy one, as bouts with rickets, rheumatic fever, and typhoid further isolated him from his peers. In nature and in the Boy Scouts he found activities that strengthened his body and engaged his mind.

His father, a faculty member at the Stevens Institute of Technology, had hoped that Alfred would become an engineer. Al attended Stevens for two years and then, without consulting his parents, applied to Bowdoin as a transfer student and was accepted. This act of defiance effectively ended his relationship with his father. In response to a question on the registration card in his alumni file asking who would be responsible for tuition payments at Bowdoin, Kinsey printed in bold letters “TO SELF.”

1916 Bowdoin Bugle entry for Alfred Charles Kinsey

1916 Bowdoin Bugle entry for Alfred Charles Kinsey.

At Bowdoin he joined Zeta Psi Fraternity, remained a bit distant socially, excelled at debate, played the piano well, and graduated Magna cum laude and as a member of Phi Beta Kappa. His Commencement address begins “I owned a friend in a gray squirrel, yonder,” moves to a discussion of the ways in which the squirrel is understood from the perspectives of art and science and – after telling the audience that the squirrel had been run over by a car – ends with the thought that science enlightens art and art leavens science. His classmates concluded Kinsey’s entry in the 1916 Bugle with this note: “If you loosen up a bit more, Al, you’ll make quite a man.”

Kinsey went on to earn a Ph.D. in biology at Harvard in 1920 and was hired that year to teach zoology at the University of Indiana. He became the world’s foremost authority on the gall wasp, and led insect-collecting expeditions to Mexico and Central America. In 1938 he taught a course on “Marriage and Family” at Indiana, using frank language and explicit photos to illustrate his points. He began recording detailed sex histories of student volunteers in the class, and pursued the collection of those histories for the rest of his life, with the same single-mindedness that led him to collect tens of thousands of gall wasps.

Opposition to Kinsey’s research was almost immediate, although he was supported by Indiana President Herman B. Wells. Grant support allowed Kinsey to hire additional researchers (including the late Vincent Nowlis ’35, a psychologist who later had a distinguished career at the University of Rochester) to gather data for Sexual Behavior in the Human Male. In 1947 Kinsey established the Institute for Sex Research as a non-profit corporation (now known as the Kinsey Institute for Sex, Gender, and Reproduction). By the time Sexual Behavior in the Human Female was published in 1953, political pressures had greatly reduced Kinsey’s grant funding, and the Institute was enmeshed in a battle over what books, works of art, and objects could be sent or received through the US mail. Exhaustion, an enlarged heart, and an undiagnosed blood clot ended Alfred Kinsey’s life on August 25, 1956.

Much of the condensed narrative above deals with Kinsey, the “larger-than-life” figure, whose intellect, courage, determination, and willingness to challenge the status quo placed him in the hot spotlight of public life. In the space that remains, I highlight some of his connections to Bowdoin which may allow us to see him from a different angle.

On July 24, 1914, Assistant Scoutmaster and Eagle Scout Alfred Kinsey wrote to Dean Kenneth C.M. Sills on letterhead from the South Orange Troop of the Boy Scouts of America: “As a student at the Stevens Institute of Technology I have finished two years, but in preference for a more general course I wish to enter as a junior at Bowdoin. I would like to apply for a scholarship. Mrs. C.S. Mayhew, whom I have been fortunate to have as a friend, has been in touch with Dr. [William DeWitt] Hyde, who refers me to you…I am earning a good sum by camping this summer, specializing in nature study. I want to work throughout the college year.” Kinsey biographers have interpreted this letter as evidence that his summer job was an expressed desire to work with Professors Manton Copeland and Alfred Otto Gross in the biology department. Was the reputation of Bowdoin’s two-person biology department in 1914 so remarkable that it attracted the attention of a young man in New Jersey? At the time that Kinsey wrote his letter, Gross had just completed his second year of teaching and Copeland had finished his sixth year. Their academic achievements largely lay before them at that time. Why Bowdoin?

The key to the puzzle was Mrs. Calista S. Mayhew, the widow of Francis Mayhew, the president of the South Orange Village Association and a successful businessman who had made a fortune in the oil business. The Mayhews knew William DeWitt Hyde, perhaps from his service as pastor of the Auburn Street Congregational Church in Paterson, New Jersey, from 1883-85, just before he accepted the invitation to become Bowdoin’s seventh president. Calista’s niece, Annie, was married to Samuel Valentine Cole of the Bowdoin Class of 1874, a Bowdoin Trustee and friend of President Hyde, and the first president of Wheaton College (1912-1925). After Annie Cole died in 1906, Mrs. Mayhew established Annie Talbot Cole lectureships at Bowdoin (the College’s first endowed lectureship) and at Wheaton. A letter of recommendation from Calista Mayhew would have caught President Hyde’s attention, and it seems plausible that her familiarity with Bowdoin figured into Kinsey’s decision to apply here. A life member of the National-American Woman Suffrage Association, Mrs. Mayhew was also a philanthropist of the first order. She directed that upon her death (at age 98 in 1921) more than half her $3,000,000 estate would go to historically black schools, colleges, and universities. Other beneficiaries included the Good Will Hinckley School in Fairfield, Maine, Wheaton, and Bowdoin (in the form of a scholarship fund in her husband’s memory and a lectureship in biology).

Kinsey flourished under the tutelage of Professors Gross and Copeland and the careful attention of administrators. This exchange of letters between Dean Paul Nixon and Kinsey in 1945 attest to the dean’s ability to follow alumni throughout their careers and give a pat on the back, when needed.

 

February 21, 1945

Dear Al,

A letter from Vin Nowlis reminds me that I have not recently written you, stating how proud we are at Bowdoin of the extraordinary work you have been doing in your field. I recently asked Alfred Gross who his best biology students of all time were. Al Kinsey headed the list.

I also judge from your WHO’S WHO record and from other references to you that eventually you’ll remake the world, or thereabouts. More power to you.

Yours cordially,

Dean

 

March 20, 1945

My dear Dean Nixon:

I appreciate your note of February 21 concerning our research in human sex behavior. I have been out of state and this is my first chance to reply.

We do have a big proposition here which is being supported by the Medical Division of the Rockefeller Foundation as a lifetime project. We have a staff of seven and will double or further enlarge the staff as soon as the opportunity affords. The work has tremendous social significance. Some day I may have a chance to tell you more about it.

Meanwhile, I appreciate the encouragement your letter brings.

Alfred C. Kinsey ’16

 

TIME magazine cover, August 24, 1953

TIME magazine cover, August 24, 1953.

Kinsey’s contemporaries at Bowdoin found him somewhat diffident, but also knew him as a serious scholar and as an accomplished debater and pianist. Renowned criminologist Austin MacCormick ’15 remembered that Al had a key for the Chapel so that he could play the piano whenever he needed to work out tensions or create moments of quiet reflection. Don Westfall ’72 interviewed two of Kinsey’s 1916 classmates for a 1971 Orient article. Publisher and newspaper editor Paul Niven reported “In the college-boy antics of his college and fraternity associates, Al took little interest; for example a pre-football game student rally…was simply not his dish! Neither were the college dances, fraternity houseparties and other social occasions. Because of the depth of his college work, it was far beyond the comprehension of his friends.” Trustee John L. Baxter remained a loyal supporter of Kinsey, although they were not especially close friends as undergraduates. On several occasions, Baxter wrote to College Librarian Art Monke to let him know that he (Baxter) would pay personally for the purchase of any “Kinseyana” books or materials for the library’s collections. Both Niven and Baxter were interviewed by Kinsey for their personal sex histories, and both were impressed with the importance of his research.

In 1971 Baxter was contacted by Paul Gebhard of the Kinsey Institute, asking if the College had refused to give Kinsey an honorary degree because of “imagined possible ridicule of the nature of his research.” Baxter replied that Kinsey’s name was never brought forward by the Honors Committee, so the Governing Boards were never aware that he had been nominated, although he conceded that “The members of that committee are usually more than average in stuffiness, or most of them are.” While honorary degrees were awarded by Bowdoin to Austin MacCormick (H’1934), Paul Niven (H’1963), and John Baxter (H’1970), that recognition was not extended to Al Kinsey. There is no evidence that Kinsey spent much time or energy worrying about it, perhaps because he was so busy collecting more histories, searching for funding, and managing a busy public and private life.

Post card from December 1951 campus visit.

Post card from December 1951 campus visit.

Several years ago I came across a black-and-white post card of Maine and Winthrop Hall at a paper ephemera show in Maine. It had a December 8, 1951, Brunswick postmark, and was sent by the Kinseys to their son, Bruce. An arrow identifies a room in Winthrop (although College records indicate that Kinsey lived in Appleton and the Zeta Psi House).  The passage of thirty-five years since graduation may have blurred the memories of the 1914-15 year, especially given the growing pressures Kinsey was under in late 1951 to secure funding for the institute and complete Sexual Behavior in the Human Female. I hope it was a relaxing visit to the campus. For me, the post card, the Bowdoin connections to Mrs. Mayhew, the professional contributions of Vin Nowlis ’35, the encouragement from Dean Nixon, and the respect of his peers give us a glimpse of the Bowdoin threads that ran throughout the fabric of Al Kinsey’s life.

 

 

With best wishes,

John R. Cross
John R. Cross ’76
Secretary of Development and College Relations

Comments

  1. Dave Larsson says:

    Fascinating story, John. Never knew the Zeta connection. Nice hat tip to Don Westfall, too. Great job!

  2. John Gibbons says:

    Nice research, John, and a very well written article. You should publish it in the magazine since not everyone sees this site. Fascinating Bowdoin Zete, Kinsey was. Thank you. John

  3. Nancy Bellhouse May says:

    As always, John, an interesting story about a little-known aspect of Bowdoin history.

    I look forward to the next installment.

  4. Al DeMoya '72 says:

    John, I agree with John G. The great columns you write about the history of the college and the “poets, statement and each son who bring thee fame” deserve a far wider audience. I’ve often said you should compile these columns into, not a book, but a series of books. You really must.

  5. Dave Brown says:

    John
    Great article. You have a gift for research and writing. I am always curious about the topics that draw your attention.
    Dave

  6. Barbara Kaster says:

    I agree your article should be printed in the Bowdoin magazine! Fascinating information, information that very few people knew. As always, you stir our memories!

  7. Barbara Kaster says:

    I agree your article should be printed in the Bowdoin magazine! Fascinating information, information few people knew. As always, you stir our memories. Thanks!!

  8. Christian Kessler says:

    Good article, but one naming error — the name of the school Kinsey joined after his PhD is Indiana University, not the University of Indiana. Don’t know why Indiana names its main university this way, but it does. Did my graduate work there & my (then) wife worked at the Kinsey Institute.

  9. Al DeMoya '72 says:

    Even re-reading your articles I learn something new. When I first came across this article, I failed to note the connection of Pres. Hyde to my native adopted hometown of Paterson, NJ. I searched Google for the church where Hyde was pastor, but it no longer exists. The image of that postcard sent running to my collection, which includes pictures of Bowdoin buildings, and sure enough, I have a copy of the one the Kinseys sent to their son.

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