When the editors of the Bowdoin Bugle suggested that Alfred Kinsey '16 "loosen up," they had no idea that their classmate would become one of the most controversial and comprehensive sex researchers in American history.
Born in 1894, Kinsey is most well-known for his extensive research on human sexuality. In 1948, he published a report titled 'Sexual Behavior in the Human Male,' and followed in 1953 with a volume on female sexual behavior. Kinsey's findings, which focused on numerical data collected from interviews, were both significant and controversial. The conclusions drawn from Kinsey's research are still highly relevant today, especially the Kinsey scale. The scale describes human sexual orientation as a continuum going from 0 (exclusively heterosexual), to 6 (exclusively homosexual).
Kinsey did not begin his college career at Bowdoin, but rather at the Stevens Institute of Technology in Hoboken, N.J. He wrote Bowdoin President Kenneth C.M. Sills in July of 1914 on Boy Scouts of America stationary expressing his wish to come to Bowdoin.
"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 this fall," Kinsey wrote.
According to biographer Wardell B. Pomeroy, Kinsey's interest in biology drew him to the College.
"Biology was his real interest, and for reasons not entirely clear he wanted to go to Bowdoin to study it," wrote Pomeroy in his book, "Dr. Kinsey and the Institute for Sex Research."
According to Pomeroy, Kinsey's decision was met with staunch opposition from his father.
"He confronted his father, who was outraged by the idea and told his son bluntly that he could expect no financial help if he carried out his plan," wrote Pomeroy.
Luckily for Kinsey, however, Bowdoin was supportive where his father was not.
"Kinsey wrote to President Kenneth Sills at Bowdoin, explaining that he wanted to attend and asking for scholarship help, which he got," wrote Pomeroy. "His father bought him a twenty-five dollar suit and, carrying out his threat never helped him financially again."
Admitting Kinsey to Bowdoin proved to be a good decision. In 1945 Paul Nixon, who was a professor and dean at Bowdoin from 1918 until 1947, wrote to Kinsey to congratulate him on his accomplishments. The letter also makes reference to Vincent Nowlis '35, who worked with Kinsey on "Sexual Behavior in the Human Male."
"A letter from Vin Nowlis reminds me that I have not written you, stating how proud we are at Bowdoin of the extraordinary work you have been doing in your field," wrote Nixon. "I recently asked Alfred Gross who his best Biology students of all time were. Al Kinsey headed the list."
Dr. Alfred Gross, Kinsey's professor of biology at the College, held his student in high esteem even before he achieved scientific fame. According to Pomeroy, "Dr. Alfred Gross, with whom [Kinsey] did his major work, considered him the brightest student he had ever known in his long teaching career at the College."
A speech given at Bowdoin by Fernandus Payne, a professor of biology at Indiana University, revealed that Kinsey's love for biology began prior to his undergraduate education, but was nurtured while at Bowdoin.
"While at Bowdoin and also in earlier years he worked in boys camps during the summer and acquired an interest in the out-of-doors and in living things," Payne said.
In addition to studying biology, Kinsey also participated in several campus organizations. He was a fraternity member of Zeta Psi, the building of which is now Ladd House. According to Pomeroy, Kinsey was a cherished member of his fraternity debating team, due to his "natural talent for verbal communication."
After graduation, however, Kinsey declined to continue his involvement with Zeta Psi.
"When the fraternity tried to involve him in its alumni activities after he became a celebrity, he resisted firmly," wrote Pomeroy.
Kinsey was also musically talented. His description in his graduation year's Bowdoin Bugle remarked that "we have...discovered that he is a professional at the piano."
According to Pomeroy, playing the piano was a way for Kinsey to unwind after working in the biology laboratory all day.
A friend of Kinsey's "sometimes saw Kinsey, from the vantage point of his dormitory window, slipping through the side door of the Music Department, which was in the rear section of the chapel," wrote Pomeroy. "Kinsey had a key to this door and permission to use the grand piano in the department, which he did late in the afternoon when there were no classes."
In addition to performing music, Kinsey also wrote for the Quill while at Bowdoin. One of his pieces, entitled "Scientific Love," expresses Kinsey's view that love is above science and cannot be measured.
"It is enough that we never do approach love in mathematical terms!" he wrote. "My essay needs not be an essay, for ages have already written all concerning love. My essay on scientific love is unscientific as it needs must be, you see, when love has no science!"
Though this piece reveals that the biologist might have believed that love was in no way mathematical, his later research on human sexuality was entirely based on numbers.
"The numbers are the important part historically," said current Professor of History David Hecht. "The fact that he had all these numbers impacted what people thought.
"He's challenging the norms, but he's doing so in a number-based way," he added.
According to Pomeroy, during his years at Bowdoin Kinsey still retained some of the innocence of his church-going Boy Scout childhood.
"He was still unbelievably innocent, an innocent that amused Kinsey when he realized it years later," wrote Pomeroy.
"The Kinsey that's become the public figure was in many ways a different person than the Kinsey that went to Bowdoin," said Hecht.
Kinsey's blurb in the Bowdoin Bugle remarked that "when Alfred Charles Kinsey entered college last fall, he was a dignified, non-committal individual, who stalked about the campus with little to say to anyone."
"Since then he has come out of his shell to some extent," it added. "If you loosen up a bit more, Al, you will make quite a man."
After delivering Bowdoin's 1916 commencement address and graduating magna cum laude, Kinsey attended Harvard University and began his research on gall wasps, a project which led to his formal research on human sexuality.
Though he did not begin to study sexuality while at Bowdoin, the College expressed its pride in Kinsey's accomplishments. In a letter to Kinsey, Nixon commented on the tremendous scope of Kinsey's research.
"I also judge...that eventually you'll remake the world, or thereabouts. More power to you," Nixon wrote.
According to Hecht, the importance of Kinsey's work is reflected in his discovery of a discrepancy between sexual discussion and behavior.
"He provided information that suggested to Americans that the way they talked about sex and what they actually did were two different things," said Hecht.