Alex Comfort

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Alex Comfort
Alex Comfort.jpg
Alexander Comfort

(1920-02-10)10 February 1920
London, England
Died26 March 2000(2000-03-26) (aged 80)
Oxfordshire, England, UK
Alma mater
  • Author
  • British physician
  • Gerontologist
  • Psychiatry professor
Known forResearch and study of human sexual behaviour
Notable work
  • Ruth Harris
  • Jane Henderson

Alexander Comfort (10 February 1920 – 26 March 2000) was a British scientist and physician known best 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.[1]

Early life and education[edit]

Comfort was educated at Highgate School in London. While he was a student there he tried to develop an improved compound of gunpowder. During his experiments he inadvertently blew up his left hand, of which only the thumb remained. Later he claimed that his left hand proved "very useful for performing uterine inversions".[2]

Comfort had a passion for molluscs, and joined the Conchological Society of Great Britain & Ireland when he was eighteen years old. He many contributions to the literature.[3]

He matriculated at Trinity College, Cambridge and studied medicine, qualifying in 1944 with the conjoint diplomas of Licentiate of the Royal College of Physicians (LRCP) London, Member of the Royal College of Surgeons (MRCS) England, and Bachelor of Medicine and Bachelor of Surgery or MB BChir.[1]

Life and work[edit]

Appearing (centre) on After Dark in 1989

Comfort served as a house physician at the London Hospital and later became a lecturer in physiology at the London Hospital Medical College. During 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.[4]

A pacifist, Comfort considered himself "an aggressive anti-militarist", and he believed that pacifism rested "solely upon the historical theory of anarchism".[5][6] During World War Two, Comfort wrote a letter to the Tribune (2 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.[1]

In a letter to Horizon in 1942 Comfort claimed that a Nazi victory over the United Kingdom would lead to a literary renaissance, for which he was fiercely criticised by George Orwell in the Partisan Review.[7] Comfort 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.[8] Later in the decade he actively endorsed both the Direct Action Committee against Nuclear War, 1957, and the Committee of 100, 1960. Comfort was imprisoned for a month, with Bertrand Russell and other leading members of the Committee of 100, for refusing to be bound not to continue organising the Parliament Square/Trafalgar Square protest of 17 September 1961.

Among the publications by Comfort concerning anarchism are Peace and Disobedience (1946), one of many pamphlets he wrote for Peace News and PPU, and Authority and Delinquency in the Modern State (1950).[5] He exchanged public correspondence with George Orwell defending pacifism in the open letter/poem, "Letter to an American Visitor", under the pseudonym "Obadiah Hornbrooke".[9]

Comfort's book The Joy of Sex (1972) earned him worldwide fame and $3 million. But he was unhappy about becoming known as "Dr. Sex" and having his other works given little attention.[10]

Comfort devoted much of the 1950s and 1960s to studying the biology of ageing (biogerontology) and popularised the subject. During 1969 he suggested that life expectancy (not simply maximum life span) could be extended to 120 years of age within the next 20 years.[5] Although Comfort believed that ageing could be postponed, he did not believe that it could be eliminated, and he did not write about rejuvenation.[11]

In 1989 Comfort made an extended appearance on the television discussion programme After Dark, alongside, among others, Ian McColl and David Widgery.

One of Comfort's final letters was to The Guardian in 1989, protesting against the Thatcher government's introduction of the poll tax.[1]

Personal life[edit]

The memorial stone of Dr Alexander Comfort and his wife Jane (nee) Henderson

The Joy of Sex made Comfort known internationally as "Dr. Sex" and soon thereafter he and his wife of thirty years divorced. A few months later, during 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 book's illustrations were based on photographs that Comfort and Henderson had taken together. The Center for the Study of Democratic Institutions, a liberal research institute, offered Comfort a job, and so, during 1973, the couple relocated to Santa Barbara, California, where it was located.[2]

They frequented the Sandstone Retreat, a clothing-optional community in California espousing "open sexuality", or swinging. In his 1981 nonfiction publication concerning 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".[2]

Jane Henderson, however, eventually became tired of the "open love" community and Comfort became involved in lawsuits with his employer concerning a claimed breach of contract. During 1985, the couple returned to England, where they lived the remainder of their lives in Kent.

During 1991, Comfort suffered a severe cerebral haemorrhage, after which his son from his first marriage acted as his caretaker and business manager. His second wife Jane Henderson died soon after the haemorrhage. He died on 26 March 2000; he was eighty years old.[2]

Partial bibliography[edit]

  • No Such Liberty (1941) – novel
  • Three New Poets (1942) – Alex Comfort, Roy McFadden, Ian Serraillier
  • A Wreath for the Living (1942)
  • Elegies (1944)
  • The Power House (1944) – novel
  • The Song of Lazarus (1945)
  • Outlaw of the Lowest Planet by Kenneth Patchen (1946) – Preface by Alex Comfort
  • Art and Social Responsibility (1946)
  • The Signal to Engage (1946)
  • Peace and Disobedience (1946) – pamphlet (reprinted in 1994 in Against Power and Death)[5]
  • Barbarism and Sexual Freedom (1948) – non-fiction
  • On This Side Nothing (1949) – novel, influenced by Albert Camus, whose work Comfort admired
  • Authority and Delinquency in the Modern State (1950)
  • Sexual Behaviour in Society (1950) – non-fiction
  • Hygromia cinctella (Draparnaud) in England. (1950) Journal of Conchology. 23: 99–100.
  • Biochemistry of molluscan shell pigments. Proc malac Soc London. 28: 79–85.
  • And All But He Departed (1951)
  • A Giant's Strength (1952) – novel
  • The Biology of Senescence (1956) – non-fiction
  • Come Out to Play (1961) – novel
  • Haste to the Wedding (1962)
  • Darwin and the Naked Lady (1962) – articles
  • Sex in Society (1963) – non-fiction
  • Ageing – the Biology of Senescence (1964)
  • Koka Shastra, being the Ratirahasya of Kokkota, and other medieval Indian writings on love (George Allen & Unwin, 1964; translator)
  • Process of Ageing (1965)
  • The Nature of Human Nature – non-fiction (US edition Harper & Row 1966)
  • The anxiety makers: some curious preoccupations of the medical profession. Nelson (1967)
  • The Joy of Sex: a Gourmet Guide to Lovemaking (1972)
  • More Joy of Sex: a Lovemaking Companion to The Joy of Sex (1973)
  • Come out to Play (1975)
  • A Good Age (1976)
  • Poems for Jane (1979)
  • The Facts of Love: Living, Loving and Growing Up Crown Publishers (1980)
  • I and That: Notes on the Biology of Religion (1980)
  • Tetrarch (1981)-a fantasy novel inspired by William Blake
  • Reality And Empathy: Physics, Mind, and Science in the 21st Century (1984)
  • Imperial Patient (1987) – a historical novel about Nero
  • The Philosophers (1989) – satire of Thatcher's Government set in the future.[12]
  • The New Joy of Sex: a Gourmet Guide to Lovemaking for the Nineties (1992)
  • Writings Against Power and Death (1994)

See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b c d 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)
  2. ^ a b c d Levy, Ariel (5 January 2009). "Doing It: A new edition of "The Joy of Sex."". The New Yorker. Retrieved 2 July 2012.
  3. ^ Dance, S Peter (2010). "Comfort and Joy Among the Snails of Chaldon". Mollusc World (24): 12. Retrieved 17 September 2015.
  4. ^ The Medical Directory 1969 (125 ed.). London: J & A Churchill. 1969. p. 356. ISBN 978-0-7000-1400-2.
  5. ^ a b c d Rayner, Claire (28 March 2000). "News: Obituaries: Alex Comfort". The Guardian. Archived from the original on 18 September 2008. Retrieved 23 August 2008.
  6. ^ 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.
  7. ^ "George Orwell: Pacifism and the War".
  8. ^ Carissa Honeywell, A British Anarchist Tradition: Herbert Read, Alex Comfort and Colin Ward, Continuum International Publishing Group, 2011 ISBN 1441190171 (p. 112).
  9. ^ Complete Essays, Journalism and Letters of George Orwell volume II, pg. 294–303
  10. ^ 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.
  11. ^ "Gerontology A Good Age by Alex Comfort". 1975–1981. Archived from the original on 20 July 2008. Retrieved 23 August 2008.
  12. ^ Encyclopedia of Science Fiction, by John Clute and Peter Nicholls, (1993). pg. 287.

External links[edit]