The Other Kinsey Report

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


When I sat down at a long table in the library of the Gray Herbarium and began leafing through the sixty-four surviving manuscript pages of Edible Wild Plants, I was most struck by their physical appearance. Kinsey wrote the manuscript on a combination of now-crumbling newsprint and used sheets of herbarium card stock that had bits of old labels stuck to them. The pages are large—fourteen by twenty-two inches—and written on both sides in Kinsey's distinctive, loopy hand [an enlarged example appears in the background on this and opposite pages].

A manuscript written on recycled paper is vintage Kinsey; even after he became famous for his sex research, he was notorious for his frugality. No doubt his interest in edible wild plants—read "free food"—was part of his belief in the intrinsic moral value of thriftiness.

The surviving manuscript pages include an introduction, a classification of edible wild plants into fourteen categories of uses, and descriptions of some thirty poisonous plants that could be mistaken for edible ones. Remarkably, almost all of his writing has been preserved intact in the introduction and the first seventy pages of the published book. The classification into various usage categories-including such idiosyncratic groupings as "Nibbles and Relishes," "Rennets," and "Masticatories and Chewing Gums"—is an early manifestation of Kinsey's lifelong fascination with taxonomy. All his research interests reflect that urge to classify. Even more striking is the evidence of Kinsey's attraction to primitivism, an inclination that shines through in the first two sentences of the book:

"Nearly every one has a certain amount of the pagan or gypsy in his nature and occasionally finds satisfaction in living for a time as a primitive man. Among the primitive instincts are the fondness for experimenting with unfamiliar foods, and the desire to be independent of the conventional sources of supply."

The statement illuminates the philosophical basis of Kinsey's interest in wild plants. And its emphasis on experimentation, primitive instinct, and independence from social norms seems to foreshadow his interest in the nature of human sexuality.

Unfortunately, no manuscript pages survive for the great bulk of the book. The latter includes detailed descriptions and discussions of the edibility of more than a thousand species of plants, mushrooms, seaweeds, and lichens. It is thus impossible to determine precisely who—Kinsey or Fernald—wrote which parts of the book. The handwritten manuscript pages make it crystal clear, however, that Kinsey developed the book's format, established its tone, and wrote the first draft. Fernald added numerous species, brought the nomenclature and technical descriptions up to date, and commissioned the book's 149 illustrations.

In reading through Kinsey and Fernalds correspondence, the earliest reference I found to Edible Wild Plants was in a note Kinsey wrote to Fernald on December 12, 1919, from Alamogordo, New Mexico, in the midst of Kinsey's cross-country gall-wasp-hunting trip: "Hope the fate of the book is coming out all right." When he left Boston, Kinsey had apparently entrusted Fernald With the task of preparing the manuscript for publication.

The next mention of the project comes about ten months later, on October 5, 1920. In a letter to Fernald from his new home in Bloomington, Indiana, Kinsey inquired after the book and offered to resume work on it now that he had settled down. Fernald replied with the unfortunate news that the book had been rejected by a prospective publisher. Kinsey took the news philosophically, "I am, of course, very sorry to hear that the publishers cannot handle the book at this time. I shall hope that a favorable opportunity for getting the thing out will turn up before too long a time."

In spite of their failure, though, the two men continued to exchange letters through 1926. In one of them, Kinsey suggested changing the manuscript entry for the American persimmon: "Since coming into a region where the persimmon is abundant as a native, I have intended writing you that we must surely change our remarks on this fruit. I am willing to go more miles to gather persimmons than any other wild food product that I know of." He concluded the letter with the following note:

Every year since we have been married, Mrs. Kinsey has served persimmon pudding in our house two or three times every week from the first of September until December. We venture to serve persimmon pudding whenever we have guests in the fall, and up to date have never found one who did not consider it a very great treat.

A complimentary entry on the persimmon and Clara B.M. Kinsey's recipe are included in the published book [see recipe at end of article].

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