Alexander Comfort, MB BChir, PhD, DSc (10 February 1920 – 26 March 2000) was a British scientist and physician best known for his nonfiction sex manual, The Joy of Sex (1972). He was an author of both fiction and nonfiction, as well as a gerontologist, anarchist, pacifist, and conscientious objector.
Early life and education
Comfort was educated at Highgate School in London. While a student there, he was convinced that he could come up with a superior concoction of gunpowder. In the course of his experiments, he ended up blowing up his left hand, of which only the thumb remained. (Later in life, he claimed that his left hand proved "very useful for performing uterine inversions".) This story is pointed to as evidence of his single-mindedness.
He entered Trinity College at Cambridge University to study medicine. (pre-clinical study leading to a BA, upgraded in 1944 to an MA) and the London Hospital (now known as the Royal London Hospital), qualifying in 1944 with both the Conjoint diplomas of Licentiate of the Royal College of Physicians (LRCP) London, Member of the Royal College of Surgeons (MRCS) England and the Cambridge Bachelor of Medicine and Bachelor of Surgery or MB BChir degrees. All in all, he accrued six degrees.
Life and work
Comfort served as a House Physician at the London Hospital and went on to become a lecturer in physiology at the London Hospital Medical College. In 1945 he obtained the Conjoint Board's Diploma in Child Health, and progressed to a PhD in 1950 and a DSc of University College, London in 1963.
A leading pacifist, Comfort considered himself "an aggressive anti-militarist", and he believed that pacifism rested "solely upon the historical theory of anarchism". During World War Two, Comfort wrote a letter to Tribune magazine (2nd April 1943) denouncing the Allied bombing of civilians:
The bombardment of Europe is not the work of soldiers nor of responsible statesmen. It is the work of bloodthirsty fools....Night after night those Europeans who risk their liberty to listen can hear the emetic threatenings and boastings of bloody-minded and reactionary civilians. They contrast the alacrity and satisfaction which attend each contemptible operation with the subterfuge and sloth which we have displayed in such tasks of constructive policy as the admission to sanctuary of the Jewish refugees.
He was an active member of the Peace Pledge Union (PPU) and Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament, and a conscientious objector in World War II. In 1951 Comfort was a signatory of the Authors' World Peace Appeal, but later resigned from its committee, claiming the AWPA had become dominated by Soviet sympathisers. Later in the decade he actively supported both the Direct Action Committee against Nuclear War when the Committee of 100 was formed, Comfort was imprisoned for a month, alongside Bertrand Russell and others, for refusing to be bound over not to take part in the Trafalgar Square protest in September 1961.
Among the works on anarchism by Comfort is Peace and Disobedience (1946), one of many pamphlets he wrote for Peace News and PPU, and Authority and Delinquency in the Modern State (1950). He exchanged public correspondence with George Orwell defending pacifism in the open letter/poem, "Letter to an American Visitor", under the pseudonym "Obadiah Hornbrooke".
Comfort devoted much of the 1950s and 1960s studying the biology of ageing (biogerontology) and popularised the subject. He could be called an early biomedical gerontologist (life extensionist) on the basis of his view that science could extend human lifespan. In 1969 he suggested that life expectancy (not simply maximum life span) could be extended to 120 years of age within the next 20 years. Although Comfort believed that ageing could be postponed, he did not believe that it could be eliminated, and he did not write about rejuvenation.
The Joy of Sex made Comfort internationally known as "Dr. Sex" and shortly thereafter he and his wife of thirty years divorced. A few months later, in 1973, Comfort married his mistress (and ex-wife's best friend) Jane Henderson, with whom he had been having an affair for more than a decade. (The illustrations in The Joy of Sex were based on Polaroids that Comfort and Henderson had taken and given to the publisher.) The Center for the Study of Democratic Institutions, a liberal think tank, offered Comfort a job, so the couple moved to Santa Barbara, California, where it was located.
They frequented the Sandstone Retreat, a clothing-optional community in California espousing "open sexuality", or swinging. In his 1981 nonfiction on sexuality in America, Thy Neighbor's Wife, Gay Talese noted, "Often the nude biologist Dr. Alex Comfort, brandishing a cigar, traipsed through the room between the prone bodies with the professional air of a lepidopterist strolling through the fields waving a butterfly net".
Jane Henderson, however, eventually grew tired of the "open love" community and Comfort became involved in lawsuits with his employer over a claimed breach of contract. In 1985, the couple returned to England, where they lived out the remainder of their lives in Kent. In 1991, Comfort suffered a severe cerebral haemorrhage, after which his son from his first marriage acted as caretaker and business manager. His second wife Jane Henderson died shortly after the haemorrhage. He died on 26 March 2000; he was eighty years old.
- David Goodway, "Introduction" to Writings Against power and death: the anarchist articles and pamphlets of Alex Comfort. London : Freedom Press, 1994. ISBN 0900384719 (pp. 7–30)
- Levy, Ariel (5 January 2009). "Doing It: A new edition of "The Joy of Sex."". The New Yorker. Retrieved 2 July 2012.
- The Medical Directory 1969 (125 ed.). London: J & A Churchill. 1969. p. 356. ISBN 978-0-7000-1400-2.
- Rayner, Claire (28 March 2000). "News: Obituaries: Alex Comfort". The Guardian. Archived from the original on 18 September 2008. Retrieved 23 August 2008.
- For discussions of Comfort's political views, see Demanding the Impossible: A History of Anarchism (1992) by Peter Marshall, and Anarchist Seeds Beneath the Snow (2006) by David Goodway.
- Carissa Honeywell, A British Anarchist Tradition: Herbert Read, Alex Comfort and Colin Ward, Continuum International Publishing Group, 2011 ISBN 1441190171 (p. 112).
- Complete Essays, Journalism and Letters of George Orwell volume II, pg. 294–303
- Martin, Douglas (20 March 2000). "Alex Comfort, 80, Dies; a Multifaceted Man Best Known for Writing 'The Joy of Sex'". The New York Times. Retrieved 23 August 2008.
- "Gerontology A Good Age by Alex Comfort". Trivia-Library.com. 1975–1981. Archived from the original on 20 July 2008. Retrieved 23 August 2008.
- Encyclopedia of Science Fiction, by John Clute and Peter Nicholls, (1993). pg. 287.
- AlexComfort.net – full text of 'Authority and Delinquency' and 'I and That: Notes on the Biology of Religion'
- Biography of Alex Comfort – with attention to his anarchist politics
- See the Alex Comfort Page in the Anarchist Encyclopedia
- Guardian obituary