The Other Kinsey Report

By Tredici, Peter Del | Natural History, July/August 2006 | Go to article overview

The Other Kinsey Report


Tredici, Peter Del, Natural History


Alfred C. Kinsey's scientific interests went well beyond sex.

Alfred C. Kinsey, the sex doctor, died fifty years ago this August. The occasion offers the chance to reconsider a figure whose interests ranged over a great deal more than the varieties of human sexual behavior. Kinsey began his career as an entomologist, but he was also passionate about plants. In fact, he collaborated with Merritt L. Fernald, a prominent professor of botany at Harvard University, to produce the classic Edible Wild Plants of Eastern North America. That book, published in 1943, still stands among the best of its kind tor the number of species it covers, the accuracy of its descriptions, and the practicality of its recommendations for harvesting and preparing wild foods.

When I purchased my first copy of Edible Wild Plants in the early 1970s, at the start of my own botanical career, I had no idea that its author was the Alfred Kinsey of the famous Kinsey reports. Sexual Behavior in the Human Male (1948) and Sexual Behavior in the Human Female (1953), each based on interviews with thousands of Americans, gained notoriety because they depicted a populace more sexually experienced and willing to experiment than the prevailing culture of the time cared to acknowledge. The two books sparked considerable controversy and public debate, made Kinsey a celebrity, established the field of sexology, and have been credited with launching the sexual revolution of the 1960s. But even after I belatedly made the connection between botanical manual and sexual exposé, I never quite figured out how Kinsey, the famous sex doctor, and Fernald, the famous botanist-strange bedfellows if ever there were any-came to be linked through such a seemingly mundane subject as edible plants.

My question lay dormant tor nearly thirty years, until I saw the biographical movie Kinsey in December 2004. In the opening scene. Professor Kinsey (played by Liain Neeson) is training his research assistants to record people's sex histories by having the assistants interview him. When an assistant asks about his education, Kinsey replies that he received his doctorate from "the Bussey Institution ofHarvard University." The words made me sit straight up in my seat, as the proverbial light bulb turned on in my brain. The Bussey Institution, now defunct, had been Harvard's agricultural college in Jamaica Plain, Massachusetts, adjacent to the Arnold Arboretum where I work. Fernald had been a professor there.

Within a week of seeing Kinsey, I e-mailed the archivist at Harvard's Gray Herbarium to see whether there were any files on Kinsey related to Edible Wild Plains. The response came hack positive: the archives held two folders of letters between Fernald and Kinsey, plus some manuscript pages for the book. I made an appointment to look over the files the following week, and I bought Jonathan dathorne-Hardy's biography of Kinsey to find out what was already known about the history of Edible Wild Plants. Next to nothing, it turns out. That biography and others mention the book only in passing.

Kinsey was born in Hoboken, New Jersey, on June 23, 1894. A sickly child, he had a tumultuous relationship with his father, who was sternly religious. Kinsey developed a deep love for the outdoors and found solace from his difficulties in the study of the natural world. His interest in nature led him to join the Boy Scouts and, at age eighteen, he became one of the first Americans to attain the rank of Eagle Scout. He was particularly intrigued by the varied art of woodcraft, the skill of living off the land, and spent most of his summers until age twenty-seven as a camp counselor in various parts of northern New England.

In 1916 Kinsey graduated from Bowdoin College in Brunswick, Maine, with a degree in biology. That September he enrolled in the doctoral program in economic entomology at the Bussey Institution. Fernald, a member of the Harvard faculty, taught a botany course at the Bussey. …

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