History of Single Life

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Vern Bullough 1928-2006

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A series about hooking up through the ages.

You might have never heard his name before, but on Saturday, June 24th, the world lost a scholar of human sexuality at least equal to Alfred Kinsey or Havelock Ellis. Vern Bullough was not only a registered nurse, a college professor, and the author or co-author of over fifty books and 100 articles — he was a compassionate firebrand who saw no wall between academia and activism, and, as Jo Ann McNamara has said, “a feminist who walked the walk.”
    Vern was born in conservative Utah in 1928, which is likely why in adulthood he became such an active member of the American Humanist Association, which advocates living an ethical life without fear of postmortem supernatural judgment. After serving his country in the Great


American Loss of Innocence known as World War II, he, like many of his generation, went to college on the G.I. Bill, earning his bachelor’s degree from the University of Utah in 1951 and his Ph.D. from the University of Chicago a scant three years later. Beginning his career writing about the history of public health, Vern quickly branched out into the study of prostitution, homosexuality, and contraception, showing that the way we think about these things is the product of our particular time and place, and not some moral absolute handed down from on high. The sheer variety and quantity of work Vern produced in the course of his career is astounding: He wrote extensively on the history of medicine and nursing, the Middle Ages, science, philosophy, natural history, and feminism. In fact, when he went back to school in the late ’70s and early ’80s to earn his nursing degree, one of the required textbooks was a history of nursing he had written with his wife and frequent collaborator, Bonnie. (He still had to take an exam on it.)
     Not only was Vern one of the first scholars to argue that homosexuality was something you were born with, and not a choice or some sort of disease, but he followed up on his beliefs with activism. He was a member of the Society for the Scientific Study of Sex, served as Los Angeles City Commissioner, and even once ran for Congress (he lost). At a time when a bar could still lose its liquor license for serving gays and you could be fired from your job for being arrested in one of the many police sweeps of cruising spots, he joined early homophile organizations such as ONE and the Mattachine Society, as well as the ACLU, which he was instrumental in

He advocated basing public policy on the way people actually behave, not religious dogma.

persuading to take up gay-rights causes. In line with his secular humanist beliefs, he advocated basing public policy towards sexual health, sex education, and birth control on the way people actually behave, and not on religious dogma. If there was such a thing as the Sexual Revolution, it took place not because of the flower children, but because of people like Vern working quietly behind the scenes.
    Vern taught at California State University in Northridge for most of his career, but when Bonnie had the opportunity to take a position as a dean of the nursing school at SUNY Buffalo in 1980, he gave up his beloved rose garden to move to the frozen tundra of western New York. There, he served as a dean and professor of history and sociology until they moved back to California in 1993, where, after a long illness, Bonnie died in 1996.
    Vern’s work, especially his Handbook of Medieval Sexuality (co-edited with James Brundage), has been an inspiration for many of these columns. Unfortunately, despite the fact that we’d spoken on the phone and that I actually once co-authored an article with him (full disclosure: He wrote most of it but was gracious enough to let me keep my credit), I never had the privilege of meeting Vern in person before he died of cancer on Saturday, June 24, 2006. He is survived by his second wife, Gwen Brewer, five children, two stepchildren, and many, many admiring students and colleagues.  

©2006 Ken Mondschein and
Ken Mondschein is a Ph.D candidate at Fordham University and the author of A History of Single Life.