Virginia E. Johnson

Virginia E. Johnson, born Mary Virginia Eshelman[1] (February 11, 1925 – July 24, 2013),[2] was an American sexologist, best known as a member of the Masters and Johnson sexuality research team.[3] Along with William H. Masters, she pioneered research into the nature of human sexual response and the diagnosis and treatment of sexual dysfunctions and disorders from 1957 until the 1990s.

Virginia E. Johnson
Mary Virginia Eshelman

(1925-02-11)February 11, 1925
Springfield, Missouri, United States
DiedJuly 24, 2013(2013-07-24) (aged 88)
St. Louis, Missouri, United States
Other namesVirginia Gibson
EducationDrury College
University of Missouri
Kansas City Conservatory of Music
Washington University in St. Louis
Known forMasters and Johnson human sexuality research team
Spouse(s)Two brief early marriages, followed by
George Johnson (1950–1956)
William H. Masters (1971–1993)

Early life

Virginia Johnson was born in Springfield, Missouri, the daughter of Edna (née Evans) and Hershel "Harry" Eshelman, a farmer.[2][4] Her paternal grandparents were members of the LDS Church, and her father had Hessian ancestry.[4] When she was five, her family moved to Palo Alto, California, where her father worked as a groundskeeper for a hospital. The family later returned to Missouri and farming.[2] Virginia enrolled at her hometown's Drury College at age 16, but dropped out and spent four years working in the Missouri state insurance office.[2] She eventually returned to school, studying at the University of Missouri and the Kansas City Conservatory of Music, and during World War II began a music career as a band singer.[2] She sang country music for radio station KWTO in Springfield, where she adopted the stage name Virginia Gibson.[1]

Johnson moved to St. Louis, Missouri, where she became a business writer for the St. Louis Daily Record.[2] Eschewing a singing career, Johnson enrolled at Washington University in St. Louis, intending to earn a degree in sociology[2] but never attaining one.[5]

Sexological works

Johnson met William H. Masters in 1957 when he hired her as a research assistant at the Department of Obstetrics and Gynecology at Washington University in St. Louis. Masters trained her in medical terminology, therapy, and research during the years she worked as his assistant.[5] Together they developed polygraph-like instruments that were designed to measure sexual arousal in humans. Using these tools, Masters and Johnson observed and measured about 700 men and women who agreed to engage in sexual activity with other participants or masturbate in Masters' laboratory.[6] By observing these subjects, Johnson helped Masters identify the four stages of sexual response. This came to be known as the human sexual response cycle. The cycle consists of the excitement phase, plateau phase, orgasmic phase, and resolution phase.[7] In 1964, Masters and Johnson established their own independent nonprofit research institution in St. Louis called the Reproductive Biology Research Foundation. The center was renamed the Masters and Johnson Institute in 1978.

In April 2009, Thomas Maier reported in Scientific American that Johnson had serious reservations about the Masters and Johnson Institute's program to convert homosexuals into heterosexuals,[8] a program which ran from 1968 to 1977.[9][10]

Personal life

By her early 20s,[2] Johnson had married a Missouri politician; the marriage lasted two days.[1] She then married a much older attorney, whom she also divorced.[1] In 1950, Johnson married bandleader George Johnson, with whom she had a boy and a girl, before divorcing in 1956.[1][2] In 1971, Johnson married William Masters after he divorced his first wife. They were divorced in 1993, though they continued to collaborate professionally.[2] Johnson died in July 2013 "of complications from several illnesses".[11][12]

Masters, who married again after his divorce from Johnson,[1] died in 2001.[13]

The American cable network Showtime debuted Masters of Sex, a dramatic television series based on the 2009 biography of the same name, on September 29, 2013. The series stars Lizzy Caplan as Johnson.


  1. Fox, Margalit (July 25, 2013). "Virginia Johnson, Widely Published Collaborator in Sex Research, Dies at 88". The New York Times. Retrieved October 11, 2013.
  2. Hayman, Suzie (July 28, 2013). "Virginia Johnson Obituary". The Guardian. UK. Retrieved October 11, 2013.
  3. Masters, William H.; Johnson, Virginia E. (1970-04-27). "Craftsmen of Sexuality". The New York Times.
  4. Maier, Thomas (2010). Masters of Sex: The Life and Times of William Masters and Virginia Johnson, the Couple Who Taught America How to Love. ReadHowYouWant. pp. 7, 8, 650. ISBN 978-1458767516.
  5. "Virginia Johnson". Missouri Women.
  6. "Masters and Johnson". Discovery Health. Sinclair Intimacy Institute. 2010-08-26.
  7. "Four Stages of the Sexual Response Cycle". Boundless. Archived from the original on 2013-06-28. Retrieved 2013-04-29.
  8. Maier, Thomas (April 22, 2009). "Can Psychiatrists Really 'Cure' Homosexuality?  Masters and Johnson Claimed to Convert Gays to Heterosexuality in a 1979 Book. But Did They?". Scientific American. Retrieved August 10, 2013.
  9. Masters, William H.; Johnson, Virginia E. (1982) [first published 1979]. Homosexuality in Perspective. Toronto; New York: Bantam Books. ISBN 978-0-553-20809-2.CS1 maint: multiple names: authors list (link)
  10. Schwartz, MF; Masters, WH (February 1, 1984). "The Masters and Johnson treatment program for dissatisfied homosexual men". American Journal of Psychiatry. 141 (2): 173–181. doi:10.1176/ajp.141.2.173. PMID 6691475.
  11. "Virginia Johnson, renowned sex researcher, dies". Archived from the original on 2013-07-25. Retrieved 2013-07-25.. Seattle Post-Intelligencer.
  12. Sorkin, Michael D. (July 25, 2013). "Virginia Johnson Masters Dies at 88; Famed Researcher Helped Debunk Sexual Myths". St. Louis Post-Dispatch. Retrieved August 10, 2013.
  13. Severo, Richard (February 19, 2001). "William H. Masters, a Pioneer in Studying and Demystifying Sex, Dies at 85". The New York Times. Archived from the original on May 27, 2012. Retrieved July 24, 2008. Dr. William H. Masters, who with his co-researcher, Virginia E. Johnson, revolutionized the way sex is studied, taught and enjoyed in America, died Friday at a hospice in Tucson. He was 85 and had lived in retirement since 1994, first in St. Louis and then in Tucson. He suffered complications from Parkinson's disease, said his wife, Geraldine Baker Oliver Masters.
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