ALEX COMFORT Biography - Writers


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Alex Comfort (February 10, 1920 - March 26, 2000) was a British physician,                     
anarchist, poet, novelist, anti-nuke activist, sexologist, etc...                             
A psychiatry lecturer at Stanford, Comfort was most famous for writing the many-times         
bestselling book, The Joy of Sex.                                                             
A member of the anti-nuclear Committee of 100, he regularly broke into evening                 
newscasts of the BBC to denounce nuclear weapons and the "pathology of power."                 
Comfort is on record as having rather despised his sex books, for all they had                 
made him so amazingly rich, and wanting to be remembered for his poetry,                       
politics, novels and science. Yet, in a sense, he is so remembered by those                   
millions of readers.                                                                           
The Joy of Sex is often anarchic — frequently poetic and sometimes funny Alex               
Comfort's first book, The Silver River, an account of a voyage to Argentina and               
Senegal, was published in 1938, when he was still a pupil at Highgate School,                 
the son of an LCC education officer.                                                           
From there, he went to Trinity College, Cambridge, to read natural sciences. He               
had a dazzling academic career — and, until his early 30s, a dazzling literary               
His fictional debut came in 1941 with No Such Liberty, written while he was at                 
Cambridge. The Power House, a long and acclaimed third novel, appeared in 1944.               
On This Side Nothing, probably Comfort's best novel, followed in 1949. There                   
were also several books of verse. Art And Social Responsibility (1946), was his               
first collection of articles.                                                                 
His lifelong pacifism dated from his schooldays; during the second world war, he               
was, he said, "an aggressive anti-militarist". It came to a head in the campaign               
against the indiscriminate bombing of Germany. Pacifism led to anarchism, for he               
came to believe that pacifism rested "solely upon the historical theory of                     
The finest single statement of Comfort's anarchism is Peace And Disobedience (1946),           
one of the many pamphlets he wrote for Peace News and the Peace Pledge Union (and             
reprinted in 1994 in Against Power And Death). But his classic contribution to                 
anarchist thought is Authority And Delinquency In The Modern State (1950), a                   
remarkable application of the findings of psychiatry and social psychology to                 
contemporary politics .                                                                       
The 1950s saw his main effort concentrated on the biology of ageing. After the                 
volume of poetry, And All But He Departed (1951), there was nothing until Haste               
To The Wedding (1962). After A Giant's Strength (1952) no novel appeared until                 
Come Out to Play (1961). A second collection of articles, Darwin And The Naked                 
Lady, was not published till 1962.                                                             
There followed a transitional decade for Comfort. Barbarism And Sexual Freedom (1948)         
had been the starting point for Sexual Behaviour In Society (1950), which was                 
revised as Sex In Society (1963). Then, in 1962, came a formative experience,                 
when he visited India. A translation from the Sanskrit of the erotological                     
mediaeval classic, The Koka Shastra, resulted in 1964. In the 1970s, came                     
Comfort's own manuals on sex.                                                                 
In 1973, he moved to the Center For The Study of Democratic Institutions at                   
Santa Barbara, California. The center soon folded, but he remained on the west                 
coast, in a series of medical and academic posts. In 1985, he retired to England.             
Comfort had written several works of scientific popularisation in the 1960s, but               
later books, such as I And That: Notes On The Biology of Religion (1979) and                   
Reality And Empathy: Physics, Mind, And Science In The 21st Century (1984), were               
a good deal more abstruse. After the 1960s, he published another three novels,                 
but only two collections of poetry. He was now a household name, but as                       
something he always denied being: a sexologist.                                               
David Hall writes:                                                                             
Towards the end of the 1950s, gerontology could hardly be called a well-defined               
or highly- respected discipline. The Club For Ageing, founded in 1947, had split               
into two, and it was to be nearly 30 years before clinicians and biologists                   
found it possible to collaborate convincingly again. There was, however, a small               
group farsighted enough to realise that this dichotomy could only detract from                 
the development of age research. One of this group was Comfort.                               
His early medical career enabled him to bring a clinician's point of view to his               
research, acknowledging that the ultimate aim of age research must be the                     
interpretation of the ageing process to the human subject. On the other hand, he               
had an insatiable curiosity, which, on his arrival in the physiology department               
at the London Hospital Medical School, and later in the zoology department of                 
University College, encouraged him to study age phenomena from whatever source                 
appropriate data could be obtained. This led him to examine ageing processes in               
both wild and captive populations of fish and other animals.                                   
He also realised that other people's studies could often be employed to good                   
effect. For instance, he found it possible to use information from horse                       
breeders' stud books to explain genetic factors associated with ageing. This                   
biological research led to the publication of The Biology Of Senescence (1961),               
to be followed by Ageing: The Biology Of Senescence (1964). And one of the                     
milestones of popular gerontology in the 1960s was a television interview                     
featuring Comfort and the "red" dean of Canterbury, Hewlett Johnson.                           
I began to appreciate the way Alex could explain the growing points of age                     
research when, in the late 1960s, we were both officers of the British Society                 
for Research on Ageing, in which he played an important role. It was about this               
time that he became a popular presenter at international meetings. These                       
lectures were characterised by such a degree of optimism about the future                     
development of gerontology - and the possible enhancement of lifespan - as to                 
make some of his more conservative colleagues cringe. Thus, in Washington, in                 
1969, he suggested that, within 20 years, human life span might extend to 120                 
Throughout Comfort's career, it was his ability to be deeply and simultaneously               
engaged in a variety of fields which characterised his activities. Such                       
activities were not always scientific or literary. I attended a scientific                     
meeting with him in Czechoslovakia, during the 1968 Prague spring, where he                   
surprised his hosts at a social evening by singing a socialist ditty extolling                 
the work ethic. He informed us he had attempted to teach it to Bertrand Russell               
when they were both on remand following a CND protest.