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.
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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The correspondence between Kinsey and Fernald slowed dramatically after 1926. No mention of "the book" is made until January 7, 1943, when Fernald wrote excitedly to Kinsey:
That long-buried manuscript on the Edible Wild Plants has suddenly come to life. You may remember that 25 years ago I tried to get it published, but four different publishers after accepting it, sent it back because they saw no way to cover the expense of the illustrations and thought that the market was too limited. Now it seems desirable to get the manuscript up-to-date, which I am doing, and the Idlewild Press of Cornwall, N.Y., has offered to print it in their best style (which is rather nifty).
Kinsey responded positively to this "pleasant surprise," then went on to add: However, since my name is going to be on this thing, and since I have some scientific reputation on the basis of my other work, I wonder if it would not be desirable to have me read the manuscript again before it goes into print.
By "other work," Kinsey was referring to his sex research, which he had begun in 1938 and was now thoroughly absorbed in pursuing. Fernald had greatly expanded and embellished the manuscript, which now bore little resemblance to the original draft of 1919. Yet Kinsey, ever the perfectionist, went on to submit some five pages of detailed edits to the manuscript.
It is probably no coincidence that Edible Wild Plants, after lying dormant for so long, was published when it was. Kinsey had recently secured a grant from the National Research Council and the Rockefeller Foundation for his sex research. Ernest G. Stillman, an official at the book publisher, Idlewild Press, was also a graduate and benefactor of Harvard University, and a member of a prominent banking family. The well-connected Stillman would almost certainly have been aware of Kinsey's "other work" and its prominent funders. And Stillman was surely mindful of the publicity value of having Kinsey's name on the book's cover, just when his sex research was gaining prominence.
The book finally came off the presses in 1943. To the surprise of almost everyone involved, it was successful enough to warrant a second printing that same year. One reason was that the U.S. Army, then in the throes of the Second World War, used the book in its wilderness-survival training program. The book's publication also coincided with food shortages then sweeping the nation. As Fernald pointed out in his revision of Kinsey's introduction, the consumer of edible wild plants "will be most content; and every time he will recognize that he has made small draft on the ration-book of coupons."
In 1947 Kinsey established the Institute for Sex Research, Inc. (now the Kinsey Institute for Research in Sex, Gender, and Reproduction, Inc.) at Indiana University. The first of his explosive reports was published in 1948, establishing his legacy. Fernald died in 1950, shortly after finishing the eighth edition of Gray's Manual of Botany. Soon thereafter, Reed C. Rollins was appointed director of Harvard's Gray Herbarium, and he wrote Kinsey to propose a revised edition of Edible Wild Plants. Kinsey agreed, but the publication of the second edition, like that of the first, suffered long delays. In fact, Kinsey died on August 25, 1956, of congestive heart failure, before the second edition came out. Not until 1958 did Harper & Row publish the second edition, which remained in print through the mid-1970s. Edible Wild Plants was reprinted in 1996 by Dover Publications, and it is once again widely available at an affordable price.
Who could have guessed that a manuscript on edible plants, written on used herbarium sheets by a frugal graduate student in entomology, would become one of the classics in its field, entertaining and educating readers even eighty-seven years later? Its existence is testament to an enduring collaboration by two authoritative scientists, and to Kinsey's extraordinary intellectual flexibility and scientific curiosity. Just don't leaf through it and expect to find any sex.
Clara B. M. Kinsey's Persimmon Pudding
2 cups persimmon pulp
1 cup (scant) sugar
2 cups milk
2 cups flour
1 teaspoon soda
½ teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon cinnamon
½ teaspoon cloves
½ teaspoon allspice
Combine the ingredients, beating well. It is best to save about half the milk until all the flour has been added. Pour about 1 1/2 inches deep in well greased pans and bake about an hour in a 325° oven. The pudding turns dark brown when it is done. Serve either warm or cold with whipped cream. Soft, juicy persimmons make the best pudding.