10 February 1920
|Died||26 March 2000
Oxfordshire, England, UK
|Known for||Research and study of human sexual behaviour|
Alexander Comfort, MB BChir (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.
Early life and education
Comfort was educated at Highgate School in London. While a student there, he attempted to develop a superior concoction of gunpowder. During his experiments he inadvertently exploded 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 used as evidence of his single-mindedness.
He matriculated at Cambridge University's Trinity College to study medicine, qualifying during 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 for 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 during 1950 and a DSc of University College, London during 1963.
A 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 the Tribune magazine (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.
He was an active member of the Peace Pledge Union (PPU) and Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament, and a conscientious objector in World War II. During 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 endorsed both the Direct Action Committee against Nuclear War when the Committee of 100 was formed, Comfort was imprisoned for a month, with Bertrand Russell and others, for refusing to be bound not to participate with the Trafalgar Square protest of September 1961.
Among the publications by Comfort concerning anarchism 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 termed an early biomedical gerontologist (life extensionist) on the basis of his opinion that science could extend human lifespan. 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. 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 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 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 research institute, offered Comfort a job, and so, during 1973, the couple relocated 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 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".
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.
- 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.
- Dance, S Peter (2010). "Comfort and joy among the snails of Chaldon". Mollusc World (24): 12. Retrieved 17 September 2015.
- 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