William Masters was a 20th century gynecologist and sex researcher who pioneered the clinical study of sex as part of the Masters and Johnson research team. 

Professional Life

William H. Masters was born on December 27, 1915, in Cleveland, Ohio. His father sent him to boarding school at age 15, and he attended Hamilton College as an undergraduate. In 1943, he graduated with a medical degree from the University of Rochester. In 1947, Masters joined the faculty of Washington University’s School of Medicine in St. Louis, Missouri.

Masters conducted research and taught in obstetrics and gynecology at Washington University, and in 1954, he hired Virginia Johnson as a research assistant. Together, Masters and Johnson studied human sexuality in unprecedented ways: they observed and recorded responses to sexual stimuli in test subjects within their laboratory. In 1964, Masters and Johnson founded a nonprofit organization to raise funding for their studies, the Reproductive Biology Research Foundation. Masters and Johnson married in 1971 and subsequently co-directed the Masters and Johnson Institute.

Masters and Johnson provided therapeutic treatment for many couples over the years, and they shared their expertise with the world in their bestselling books, Human Sexual Response and Human Sexual Inadequacy. The couple divorced in 1993, amicably, and they ceased to work together. Masters died in 2001.  

Contribution to Psychology

Masters & Johnson's years of work led to groundbreaking advances in the field of sexual psychology and the treatment of sexual issues. Alfred Kinsey studied human sexuality a decade earlier, but his research was based on feedback from study participants; Masters and Johnson took sex research to the next level by conducting their research in a laboratory to evaluate the correlation between sexual behavior and psychology.

Paid volunteers—gay, lesbian, and heterosexual couples and individuals—were observed engaging in intercourse and masturbation in order to study the human sexual response. As a result, Masters and Johnson dispelled many myths regarding sexual behavior based on gender, sexual orientation, and age. They identified four stages of human sexual response that is widely used today. 

  1. The excitement/arousal phase: Sexual excitement often occurs as a result of physical or psychological stimulation or sexual thoughts, but it can also occur seemingly randomly. Excitement increases the heart rate and blood pressure. Both men and women display erect nipples, and men begin to develop erections, while women secrete vaginal lubrication. 
  2. The plateau phase: Preceding orgasm, this phase marks full sexual arousal. Men may secret pre-ejaculatory fluid, and both sexes experience muscular contractions in their genitals. 
  3. Orgasm: An extreme sense of pleasure coincides with rhythmic muscular contractions in the genitals. 
  4. The resolution phase: Sexual interest begins to wane. Masters and Johnson noted that men entered a refractory period during resolution during which they were unable to orgasm again. While women may also experience a refractory period, Masters and Johnson pointed out that the ability of women to attain multiple orgasms typically results in either a shortened refractory period or none at all.

In addition, Masters and Johnson developed a clinical therapy program to serve couples addressing sexual dysfunction. In the past, treatment had been limited to prolonged therapy sessions for one member of the couple; in 1959, Masters and Johnson began working as a team to treat both members of the couple in a two-week program, with a five-year follow-up. Couples met with a success rate above 80% with the Masters and Johnson counseling technique. They outlined this technique in the book Human Sexual Inadequacy in 1970.

Criticism and Controversy

The team's work was not without controversy. Masters briefly attempted to treat homosexuality, and conservative groups faulted Masters and Johnson for ushering in a sexual revolution. Their work, however, was wildly popular. Human Sexual Response, the book compiling their research, was printed in a popular edition for the general public.


  1. Nemy, E. (1994, March 24). An afternoon with Masters and Johnson. New York Times. Retrieved from http://www.nytimes.com/1994/03/24/garden/an-afternoon-with-masters-and-johnson-divorced-yes-but-not-split.html?pagewanted=all
  2. Oliver, M. (2001, Feb 19). Obituaries; dr. william masters; groundbreaking sexuality researcher. Los Angeles Times. Retrieved from http://search.proquest.com/docview/421602641?accountid=1229