Historical essay
Why We Should Recognize Dr. Katharine Bement Davis Alongside Dr. Alfred Kinsey as a Pioneering Sex Researcher

Why We Should Recognize Dr. Katharine Bement Davis Alongside Dr. Alfred Kinsey as a Pioneering Sex Researcher

Anya Jabour

In 1917, when Dr. Katharine Bement Davis accepted philanthropist John D. Rockefeller Jr.’s invitation to lead the Bureau of Social Hygiene (BSH), an organization dedicated to combating sex work and sexually transmitted infections, he expressed “very great satisfaction” at the prospect of working with her. Rockefeller had “the highest opinion of your ability,” and was confident that Davis could “render important service” by “bring[ing] into harmonious, effective and economic relationship the various organizations in this city dealing with prostitution and vice.” But ten years later, Rockefeller terminated Davis’s employment, explaining that “the situation is entirely different than when the Bureau was organized.” Although Davis hoped to continue to work with the BSH for another two years, when she would reach her “self appointed age of retirement” of seventy, Rockefeller informed her he intended to entirely reorganize the Bureau, and there would be no place for her in the reconstituted organization. Although Rockefeller offered Davis a generous severance package, his decision was “definite and final.”[1]

What happened? Simply put, during Davis’s decade at the BSH, she adopted new ideas about “the scientific study of sex” that did not accord with Rockefeller’s mission to suppress sex work. Davis’s pathbreaking study of female sexuality and her founding membership in the nation’s first committee for the study of sex made her a pioneering sexologist, but her desire to “put sex on the scientific map” also caused her to lose her job—and ultimately led to her erasure from the official annals of the Rockefeller Foundation.[2] Gender discrimination, as well as disagreement over the aims of the organization, also played an important role in Davis’s downfall, as her male colleagues, who had long resented her leadership, used Davis’s most innovative ideas against her.

Headshot of Katherine Davis in a large perhaps taffeta or velvet hat.
Katharine Bement Davis (1860-1935) served as Commissioner of Corrections for New York City. (Library of Congress / Flickr Commons Project)

Davis, a former schoolteacher from upstate New York, became one of the nation’s first female doctorates when she earned her Ph.D. in economics from the University of Chicago in 1901. Like many highly educated “new women,” she initially found employment in the emerging profession of social work, then known as “charities and corrections.” Davis entered the latter field, becoming the first director of the New York State Reformatory for Women at Bedford Hills, where nearly half the inmates had been confined for prostitution. Davis served as superintendent from 1901 to 1913; she continued to work in corrections until 1917, when she moved to the Bureau of Social Hygiene full time.

In 1911, Davis approached Rockefeller, seeking support to study and classify Bedford’s inmates; Rockefeller established the Bureau of Social Hygiene that same year. When the BSH incorporated two years later, he named Davis as one of its four directors. In addition to funding Bedford’s Laboratory of Social Hygiene, the BSH hired two male researchers, Raymond B. Fosdick and Abraham Flexner. Fosdick, a lawyer, and Flexner, a physician, almost immediately began to undermine Davis, suggesting that the BSH should focus more on crime than on sexuality and that Davis lacked the scholarly credentials to undertake serious research—although, of the three, she was the only one to hold a Ph.D. Fosdick campaigned to be named director of the BSH—a campaign that backfired when, in 1917, Rockefeller hand-picked Davis to direct the Bureau.[3]

Davis’s early research focused on women’s sexual delinquency. During World War I, she played a prominent role in the federal government’s campaign to combat prostitution and venereal disease. As late as 1919, she warned against allowing wartime disregard for sexual “inhibitions” to usher in “a changed social order.” But by 1920, she had become intrigued by a different approach to sex research: the study of “normal” female sexuality.[4] Flexner and Fosdick opposed Davis’s proposed study, dismissing it as “not be[ing] of sufficient scientific value to be worthwhile.”[5] But Rockefeller endorsed her plan.

To lend legitimacy to the project, Davis recruited “a committee of well-known women of scientific training” to design a detailed questionnaire and distribute it to approximately 5,000 clubwomen and college graduates. Although the original survey has not been preserved, the cover letter suggested it asked explicit questions and solicited honest answers about “the sex experiences in girlhood, womanhood, and marriage.” To encourage participation, the initial query promised absolute anonymity and assured participants that their cooperation would “be of great social value.” Fosdick remarked: “The questionnaire is an amazing piece of work, and I confess its frankness quite takes my breath away.”[6]

Published in 1929, Factors in the Sex Life of Twenty-Two Hundred Women shocked a generation of Americans struggling with the protracted—and contested—transition from Victorian to modern sexual mores. Davis’s revelations about women’s sexual desire and behavior—both heterosexual and homosexual—flew in the face of conventional beliefs about female “passionlessness.”[7] Many critics were especially scandalized by her discussion of masturbation. Indeed, Davis’s secretary rebuffed requests for copies of the questionnaire because it had been “criticized in many quarters because it contained specific information on auto-erotic practices, coupled with the statement that ‘the harmful physical and mental effects have been greatly exaggerated.’”[8]

A type-written letter
Criticism of a proposal by the Committee on Sex Research. (Rockefeller Archive Center, Bureau of Social Hygiene)

Davis’s exploration of female sexuality was part of a larger project. At the same time that Davis launched her study, she proposed a large-scale, multifaceted study of human sexuality. Flexner balked at the proposal, criticizing it as “too comprehensive and general.” With Rockefeller’s financial backing, however, Davis and a group of male physicians and professors established the National Research Council’s Committee for Research on the Problems of Sex in 1921.[9]

Davis resisted retirement not only because she wished to complete her own study of female sexuality, but also because she was committed to transforming the BSH into a center for the study of human sexuality. As her ten-year contract drew to a close, she urged Rockefeller to make “the scientific study of sex” the Bureau’s top priority. Significantly, she also opined that henceforth, the BSH should eschew “propaganda” and become “purely a research organization.”[10]

Davis’s suggestion met with a cool reception. Although the BSH had underwritten numerous publications about prostitution, neither Rockefeller nor his male advisors shared Davis’s enthusiasm for a nonjudgmental approach to human sexuality. Davis’s detractors seized the opportunity to oust her from the BSH. Fosdick, who described the Committee as “stark mad,” urged Rockefeller to terminate Davis’s employment. Asserting, “she is fast losing her grip,” he even dissuaded him from allowing her to serve in an advisory capacity.[11]

After more than a decade of undermining his female colleague, Fosdick finally achieved his aims. Davis lost not only her position but also her influence over Rockefeller and the BSH. The new all-male leadership team shifted the Bureau’s focus from sexuality to criminology. Although Rockefeller continued to fund the Committee, it focused almost entirely on biological studies until 1941, when it began to support Dr. Alfred Kinsey’s research.

While Kinsey has become a household name, only a handful of specialists are familiar with Davis today. In 1956, Fosdick wrote a biography of Rockefeller in which he praised the male members of the BSH but omitted Davis from the Bureau’s history entirely. While gender discrimination and professional rivalries limited her success, Davis deserves recognition as a pathbreaking scholar of human sexuality. The challenges she confronted a century ago still resonate today.

Both outdated moral codes and enduring gender discrimination pervaded Davis’s struggle to establish sex research as a valid area of inquiry. In the 1910s, when Davis had advocated for strict moral standards that condemned nonmarital sex for both men and women, she had Rockefeller’s support. But in the 1920s, Davis began to promote an honest evaluation of actual sexual behavior as the basis for “a rational sex ethics.” The reasons for her sudden about-face remain obscure, but clearly Rockefeller was not prepared to countenance his long-time colleague’s new interest in studying sexual behavior “in vacuo” rather than as a social problem.[12]

While Davis’s advocacy of sexuality studies prompted her expulsion from the BSH, persistent sexism plagued her entire career there. She often insisted on announcing her professional qualifications, using “Dr. Katharine Bement Davis” or “Katharine Bement Davis, Ph.D.” on letterhead and publications. However, she never protested Rockefeller’s habit of referring to her as “Miss Davis,” sacrificing her professional pride to maintain his financial support. She also never complained that she earned far less than Fosdick—$7,500 versus $12,000 annually—even though she had superior academic credentials.

Davis’s struggle for respect—both for herself and for the study of human sexuality—will sound familiar to many readers. Female academics still contend with both unequal respect and unequal compensation, and academic programs dedicated to the study of gender and sexuality are under attack. A century later, perhaps Davis’s story will inspire us to continue fighting for the recognition we—and our scholarship—deserve.


  1. John D. Rockefeller Jr. (JDR) to Kathrarine Bement Davis (KBD), 7/2/1917, 10/11/1917, 4/2/1927, and 12/20/1927; KBD to JDR, 4/5/1927, Office of the Messrs. Rockefeller (OMR), Rockefeller Boards (RB), Series O, Box 7, Folder 48. All quoted materials are from the Rockefeller Archives Center, Sleepy Hollow, New York. Many thanks to the helpful staff for digitizing hundreds of pages of materials for me during the pandemic-induced shutdown.
  2. KBD to JDR, 4/27/1927, OMR, RB, Series O, Box 7, Folder 7.
  3. Sarah Stage, “What ‘Good Girls’ Do: Katharine Bement Davis and the Moral Panic of the First U.S. Sexual Survey,” in Breanne Fahs, Mary Dudy, and Sarah Stage, eds., The Moral Panics of Sexuality (Palgrave Macmillan, 2013), 151-163, especially pp. 155-156.
  4. Katharine Bement Davis, Factors in the Sex Life of Twenty-Two Hundred Women (Harper & Brothers, 1929), 342.
  5. JDR to RBF, 1/26/1921, OMR, RB, Series O, Box 7, Folder 49.
  6. KBD to “Dear Madam,” 1/20/1921, and RBF to JDR, 1/31/1921, OMR, RB, Series O, Box 7, Folder 49.
  7. Nancy F. Cott, “Passionlessness: An Interpretation of Victorian Sexual Ideology, 1790–1850,” Signs 4, no. 2 (Winter 1978), 219–236; for an in-depth discussion that complicates the shift from Victorian to modern, see Catherine Cocks, “Rethinking Sexuality in the Progressive Era,” Journal of the Gilded Age and Progressive Era 5, no. 2 (Apr. 2006), 93–118.
  8. “File Memorandum. Subject: Request for Dr. Davis’ Questionnaire–Mr. Harry G. Griswold,” 10/19/1932, BSH Series 3.2, Folder 179.
  9. Abraham Flexner to JDR, 6/13/1921, OMR, RB, Series O, Box 8, Folder 50; Vern L. Bullough, “Katharine Bement Davis, Sex Research, and the Rockefeller Foundation,” Journal of the History of Medicine, Vol. 62, No 1 (Spring 1988), 74-89.
  10. KBD to JDR, 4/27/1927, OMR, RB, Series O, Box 7, Folder 7.
  11. RBF to JDR, 4/23/1927, OMR, RB, Series O, Box 7, Folder 48.
  12. M. J. Exner to JDR, 6/7/1921, OMR, RB, Series O, Box 8, Folder 50.

Featured image caption: Criminologist, social reformer, and writer Katharine Bement Davis. (Courtesy Library of Congress/Flickr Commons Project)

Anya Jabour is Regents Professor of History at the University of Montana, where she teaches courses in US women's history and directs the public history program. The author of the 2019 biography Sophonisba Breckinridge: Championing Women's Activism in Modern America, she is currently working on the first full-length study of prison reformer and sex researcher Katharine Bement Davis.