The Other Kinsey Report

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

flowering wood sorrel

flowering wood sorrel

©iStockphoto.com/Aleksander Bolbot

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 for 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 expose, 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 for nearly thirty years, until I saw the biographical movie Kinsey in December 2004. In the opening scene, Professor Kinsey (played by Liam 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 of Harvard 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 emailed the archivist at Harvard's Gray Herbarium to see whether there were any files on Kinsey related to Edible Wild Plants. The response came back 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 Gathorne-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. He had established his reputation by coauthoring the seventh edition of Asa Gray's famous Manual of Botany, published in 1908, and would later serve as director of the Gray Herbarium. It's not clear how Kinsey and Fernald met, but the Bussey was a small institution and the paths of the two men, who shared a common interest in plants, undoubtedly crossed early in Kinsey's tenure there.

For his doctoral research, as movie fans will recall, Kinsey chose to work on gall wasps. The insects induce oak trees to produce bizarrely shaped woody growths to harbor developing gall-wasp eggs. By September 1919, doctorate in hand, he embarked on a year-long field trip to collect gall wasps. He traveled across much of the southern and western United States, on public transportation and on foot, camping and living off the land whenever possible. His travels ended by August 1920, when he joined the zoology department at Indiana University in Bloomington as an assistant professor of entomology. There, Kinsey continued working on gall wasps, collecting and classifying hundreds of species and becoming an authority on their evolution, until he began his studies on human sexuality in the late 1930s. By that time, he had collected more than five million galls and gall wasps, now housed at the American Museum of Natural History in New York.

Kinsey's plan to write a book on edible wild plants took root when he was still a student at the Bussey. Somehow, while taking courses, working on his dissertation, and teaching undergraduate courses in zoology, he found time to compose a rough draft of Edible Wild Plants. In short, Kinsey's passion for botany was as strong as it was for gall wasps or, indeed, in later years, for sex. In any event, at some time before he graduated from Harvard, Kinsey enlisted Fernald as a coauthor of the book, undoubtedly to help flesh out its technical plant treatments.

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