MARCH
2005

 

 

 

By
Tom Turpin
 
Professor of
Entomology
Purdue University

 

 

 

 

 

03-10-05

Alfred C. Kinsey: From Insects to Human Sex

Alfred C. Kinsey is well known as the founder of what today is called The Kinsey Institute for Research in Sex, Gender and Reproduction at Indiana University. He gained fame for publishing two reports on human sexuality. The first became a best-selling book. It was entitled "Sexual Behavior of the Human Male" and was published in 1948. The sequel was a natural! "Sexual Behavior of the Human Female" was published in 1952.

Before Kinsey delved into the scientifically and politically treacherous waters of human sexuality, he did research on insects. Yes, A. C. Kinsey was an entomologist. He had a lifelong interest in field biology, but, at his father's insistence, he started college in engineering. He was an unsuccessful student in technical engineering but was very successful when he changed schools and majored in biology.

Kinsey received a fellowship to Harvard where he earned his doctor of science degree under the direction of famed ant specialist William Morton Wheeler. For his dissertation, Kinsey studied gall wasps. These very small wasps are some of hundreds of species of insects that produce galls in plants. Because gall insects are small in size, the plant growth they induce is generally more widely recognized than the insect.

Galls form because the presence of the insect causes the plant to defend itself by abnormal growth. Insect-induced plant galls vary in shape and size depending on the insect cause. However, the gall is consistent in structure for each insect species. Therefore, many gall-forming insects have names that indicate the structure of gall: for instance, the elm cockscomb gall, the witch-hazel cone gall and the hackberry nipple gall.

Kinsey took a position in the zoology department at Indiana University shortly after leaving Harvard. There, he continued his work on gall wasps. In 1926 Kinsey authored a general textbook for high school biology. "An Introduction to Biology" was intended for use at the 9th- and 10th-grade levels. The textbook was very successful and along with his laboratory manual was widely used.

It is interesting to note that in preparation of his textbook, Kinsey had assistance from several noted entomologists of the time. His Harvard mentor W. M. Wheeler assisted with the chapter on ants. Purdue entomologist J. J. Davis contributed in the area of general entomology and insect pest control. L. O Howard, chief of the U.S. Bureau of Entomology also assisted. O. E. Plath of Boston University helped with the chapter on bee keeping. Plath's daughter Sylvia became a well-known poet and writer. One of her better-known works was appropriately entitled "A Beekeepers Daughter."

Kinsey stated that two chapters in his textbook were based on his new research. These chapters included "Taxonomists as Explorers" and, not surprisingly, "Galls and Gall Wasps." Soon after he arrived at Indiana University, Kinsey began publishing on the classification and biology of gall wasps.

Based on his work, he authored three large publications on gall wasps in 1923, 1930 and 1936. As part of his work, Kinsey described 187 species of gall wasps. Kinsey was also in regular attendance at the annual meeting of Indiana entomologists.

In addition to teaching entomology, Kinsey began a course on human sexuality in 1937. The course became very popular, and Kinsey began to interview his students about their sexual habits. Out of this grew the research that resulted in Kinsey's famous reports and the establishment of the Kinsey Institute.

So what happened to the research on gall wasps? Well, it is not clear. But what is clear is that Kinsey did not attend meetings of Indiana entomologists after 1941. It appears that human sex was more interesting than insects to A. C. Kinsey. But that is probably good, because if he had not changed his research interests, only entomologists would have heard of him. And they certainly wouldn't have made a movie about his life!

 

Writer: Tom Turpin
Editor: Olivia Maddox