An archival slide box and document.

Dr. John Money Discovered

By Elizabeth Newton ~
The vast collections of the National Library of Medicine encompass a startling variety of topics and materials. I recently spent two months interning in the Historical Audiovisuals program of the library’s History of Medicine Division, researching and writing film abstracts, taking inventory in the film vault, and examining audiocassette, phonograph, and slide collections whose contents needed documentation. In this work, I learned that it is not uncommon to find unprocessed, undescribed material in archival collections, and part of the archivist’s job is to identify, arrange, and describe it.

Portrait photograph of John Money.One day my supervisor, Sarah Eilers, placed on my desk a light table, some magnifying tools, and a box with the name “John Money” written lightly on the outside in pencil. Sarah asked me figure out what was in the box, sort the contents into a better, reasonable order, and develop an inventory. She said that Dr. Money had been a well-known and controversial scientist in the fields of gender and sexual identity, and the slides and papers in the box might relate to that, but she was not sure, and no one previously had found the time to study this collection. Before diving into the contents of the box, I researched the name written on the side and discovered that John Money was arguably one of the most contradictory doctors in medical history, famously known for a disastrous gender-reassignment experiment with twins David and Brian Reimer, but also widely known for his rich contributions to the field of sexology. Dr. Money’s papers are housed at the Kinsey Institute at Indiana University, which offers a research fellowship in his name, and his work is still being discussed today.

An archival slide box and document.

“I have a kind of image in my mind of, five to seven thousand years or more ago, a conclave of priestly rulers who were extraordinarily clever. They came out of their conclave, having discovered the principle that the way to gain power over their people was to make them guilty about the functioning of the body with regard to sex. The power to make people guilty is also the power to make them conform.” Dr. John Money, 1971.

A couple of documents in the NLM box indicated that the material was transferred to NLM in the mid-1990s from the University of Pittsburgh. Inside the box was a variety of medical slides and pamphlets, and also a transcript of a Money lecture at Johns Hopkins University with the provocative title “Pornography in the Home,” accompanied by 118 slides. A published version of the lecture appeared in1973 in Contemporary Sexual Behavior: Critical Issues in the 1970s based on the proceedings of the sixty-first annual meeting of the American Psychopathological Association.  It appears there was a sound recording of the lecture as well, but the audio was not in the box. Despite its startling title, the February 17, 1971 lecture was not solely about pornography, but about the importance of frank sex education in the home and in school settings. Sex education, or its lack in many cases, is still a contentious topic in the United States today.

In his lecture, Dr. Money addressed contemporary issues and problems in sex education, with possible solutions. While he was primarily focused on the matter of visual imagery in sex education, he addressed other issues, which, 45 years later, still ring true, such as the absence of the concept of love in sex education courses.

“The verdict of history, so far as the 19th century is concerned, is that the seed of absurdity housed the plant of reasonable change.” The Destroying Angel, John Money (75)

Money further explored the history of this persistent phenomenon of anti-sexualism in America in his book, The Destroying Angel. When one is consistently punished or silenced for asking questions about or exhibiting a natural drive, problems arise. Growing up in Mississippi many decades after Money’s critiques were published, I have first-hand experience with sex education courses that were seriously lacking in substance, and the correlating social issues. Mississippi currently has the second highest rates of teen pregnancy and gonorrhea in the U.S., as well as one of the most conservative sex-education policies. According to Mississippi House Bill 494, as of 2016 the state requires that school districts choose from one of two sex education programs: abstinence plus or abstinence only.  While public schools are, in fact, required to teach sex education courses, they hardly scrape the surface of human sexuality. For example, in the abstinence plus program, the teacher may discuss birth control and sexually transmitted diseases such as HIV/AIDS, but can in no way provide demonstrations on how to effectively use condoms. In Money’s Destroying Angel, he argued that rather than being protected, “children are victimized by lack of education on explicit sex and pornography. They are deprived not only of the actual knowledge but also of the opportunity to learn the moral principles that apply to…sex…in their own lives”.

A tomb pottery piece depicting a sexual activity.The collection included a set of 118 slides that Dr. Money showed with his lecture, beginning with several that illustrate erotic art from around the world, in order to “…remind you that the portrayal of sexual things is nothing special in our society and nothing new—that it has been with mankind probably for all of mankind’s history.”  Dr. Money notes in his lecture that “…if any of you have seen the museum in Lima, [tomb pottery] included practically every position and activity of sexuality that one can think of.”

During my time at NLM, I developed a strong interest in Dr. Money and his contributions to sex education. Controversies both thoughtfully acknowledged and set aside for the moment, it seems that one of his genuine goals was to help people to become more open-minded and better understand those with sexual tendencies that are not within the “norm” of society. I think it is important to note the difficulties that come with exploring a field of medicine with such a strong cultural taboo. John Money had a complex mind, and he held extremely progressive, even shocking, ideas for the time period in which he was working. I hope to continue my research on Dr. Money and the history of human sexuality—an area I likely would not have known anything about had I not been assigned to explore, describe, and better understand one of the NLM’s “hidden collections.”

“One becomes better able to help others by achieving a position, and I want to weigh this word very carefully, of nonjudgementalism.” John Money

A young woman seated at a film viewer.Elizabeth Newton is a senior at Millsaps College. She is a double major in Philosophy and History and plans to have a career in education. She was a volunteer at the National Library of Medicine during summer of 2017.


  1. The author egregiously fails to mention that Money’s experiments were essentially equivalent to some of Joseph Menegele’s. The damage to the lives of countless boys is a tragedy of monumental proportion. It’s vastly greater than a mere “controversy,” as this article suggests.

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