ST. LOUIS — In an era when even talking about sex was virtually taboo, Virginia Johnson had a way of putting research subjects at ease, persuading them to participate in groundbreaking investigations that changed the way human sexuality was perceived.
Johnson, half of the renowned Masters and Johnson team, was remembered Thursday as one of the key figures in the sexual revolution. Johnson, whose legal name was Virginia Masters, died Wednesday of complications from several illnesses at an assisted living center in St. Louis. She was 88.
"She has one of the most extraordinary lives of any American woman in the 20th century," said Thomas Maier, author of the 2009 book "Masters of Sex, the Life and Times of William Masters and Virginia Johnson, the Couple Who Taught America How to Love."
"She literally came in without a degree and became one of the most well-known female figures in medicine in her time," Maier said.
Johnson grew up in rural Missouri, near the small town of Golden City. By the late 1950s she was in her 30s and twice-divorced, raising two small children and looking for a job.
She landed work as a secretary in the medical school at Washington University in St. Louis. That's where she met Masters, an obstetrician-gynecologist who hired her as his assistant for his research into human sexuality, studies performed first at Washington University and later at the Masters and Johnson Institute in St. Louis.
It was a strange indoctrination: Masters convinced her that having sex with him was part of the job. They eventually became lovers and wed in 1971. (They divorced 20 years later.)
Over time, Johnson grew from an assistant to co-collaborator. They were a good fit together: Masters had impeccable academic and research credentials, a brilliant scientist but aloof and lacking in people skills. Maier said it was Johnson who managed to recruit the countless volunteers needed for the studies — graduate students, nurses, faculty wives and other participants for what was almost certainly the largest human sexuality experiment ever in the U.S.
"He was a rigorous scientist most comfortable in a white coat," said Dr. Robert Kolodny, who worked alongside the couple for years and was associate director of the Masters and Johnson Institute.
"Ginny had people skills and a warmth about her, and projected an interest in humanity that was a very good foil to his austere scientist demeanor."
In after-hours research, Masters and Johnson shattered basic precepts about female sexuality, including Freud's concept that vaginal — rather than clitoral — orgasm was the more mature sexual response for women.
She took the case studies and asked the uncomfortable questions. Hundreds of couples, not all of them married, participated in the observed research.
That research was later discussed in their 1966 book, "Human Sexual Response." And their 1970 book, "Human Sexual Inadequacy," explored a therapy they'd developed for men and women with sexual problems.
Both books were best-sellers translated into dozens of languages.
Kolodny said Johnson played a major and creative role in devising their sex therapy, which helped people focus on sensation of touch rather than performance. Before Masters and Johnson, Kolodny said, medicine was in the "dark era" when it came to human sexuality
"She gave women sort of permission to honor their own sexuality," Kolodny said.
At the height of their careers, Masters and Johnson were huge celebrities, the topic of late-night talk show hosts and on the cover of news magazines.
Their work had its critics, and it was often frowned upon in some circles in an era when sex was seldom discussed publicly.
"There was a lot of grief," Johnson's son, Scott Johnson, recalled. "There were threats, things of that kind. She was a very strong woman."
As Masters' health was in decline in the 1990s, and Johnson was caring for him, he announced he was divorcing her, leaving her to pursue a sweetheart of his youth. The Masters and Johnson Institute closed in 1994 after Masters retired. He died in 2001.
Scott Johnson said his mother also retired in the 1990s.
But their work still fascinates and resonates. Showtime will debut a TV series in September, "Masters of Sex," based on Maier's book.
"She brought equality to women in the field of sexuality," Maier said. "Their studies underlined the power of female sexuality."
Along with her son, Johnson is survived by her daughter, Lisa Young, and two grandchildren. Private funeral arrangements were pending.