Alex Comfort, byname of Alexander Comfort (born Feb. 10, 1920 London Eng.—died March 26, 2000, Banbury Oxfordshire), English gerontologist and author, best known for his books on sexual behaviour
Alex Comfort was educated at the University of Cambridge (B.A., 1943; M.A., 1945) and the University of London (Ph.D., 1949) and qualified in medicine at the Royal College of Physicians and London Hospital. He taught and did research both in London and in the United States (1974–91).
Comfort’s theories on aging are expressed in The Biology of Senescence (1956) and The Process of Aging(1964), the latter being an introduction to gerontology for the layperson. He advocated greater freedom in sexual behaviour in books ranging from the scholarly Sexual Behaviour in Society (1950) to the best-selling The Joy of Sex (1972), which was described as a “gourmet guide to lovemaking” and featured unself-conscious text and illustrations. Translated into more than 20 languages, it was followed by More Joy of Sex (1974) and The New Joy of Sex (1991). Among Comfort’s other books on sexual problems and practices are Sex in Society (1975) and Sexual Consequences of Disability (1978).
Though chiefly known for his works on sex, Comfort was a prolific author, writing on a diverse range of subjects. At age 17 he wrote his first book, The Silver River (1938), a diary of his travels in the South Atlantic. In 1941 he made his fiction debut with No Such Liberty. Other novels followed, as well as several poetry collections. A noted anarchist, Comfort wrote numerous works on anarchy, including the highly influential Authority and Delinquency in the Modern State (1950). He was also active in the nuclear disarmament movement.
From an article found on the internet: While maintaining his connection with California, in the mid-1980s Comfort returned to England, settling in Cranbrook in Kent (near the geriatrician Lord Amulree). He continued his new clinical activities as a locum in the south of England. But in 1991 he suffered the first of three strokes that left him disabled and wheelchair-bound. His wife, Jane, died soon after the first stroke. After a period of living in a supported flat in Highgate he moved to a nursing home in Northamptonshire, near his only child, Nicholas, a political journalist, and his family. He died on 26 March 2000, of myocardial infarction, gastro-intestinal haemorrhage, and cerebral atherosclerosis, at the Horton Hospital, Banbury, and was buried at Comforts Wood, Swattenden Lane, Cranbrook, Kent. He was survived by his son. The Irish poet Robert Greacen wrote an affectionate elegy for him; a special issue of Experimental Gerontology had appeared as a Festschrift in 1998.
Alex Comfort, who has died aged 80, was a physician, poet, novelist, anarchist and pacifist. He was never known for the length of his temper, and would have been extremely annoyed today to be reminded that, for many people, his name means only sex. Never mind his poetry, his novels, his gerontology, his startling politics or the breathtaking width of his mind and the power of his grasp; it was his production of a couple of books about sex as a leisure activity, like snooker or tennis, or cooking and eating, that made him a household name.
It was back in the early 1970s that James Mitchell, of publishers Mitchell Beasley, suggested to his friend, Comfort, that he might write a sex manual. Mitchell had previously published an anthology, The Complete Lover, a rather soggy collection of poems, stories and mildly erotic romance for which Comfort had written a chapter on real sex; this had been withdrawn from The Complete Lover because the American publishers, McGraw Hill, would have been too shocked by it - but the idea remained with Mitchell.
Thus was The Joy Of Sex: A Gourmet Guide To Lovemaking, born to be published in 1972. It was an easy birth, incidentally. Comfort wrote the book in two weeks, drawing largely , it was said by insiders, on his affair with the woman who was to become his second wife . Its original title was Cordon Bleu Sex (hence the chapters headed Starters, Main Courses, Sauces and Pickles) but the owners of the Cordon Bleu name objected, so the title was changed.
The illustrations were not. Depicting a bearded man with a less than perfect body, and a woman equally ordinary, they enabled readers to relate to the book as no previous sex manual had. The unselfconscious text showed a lively interest in all sorts of highways and byways of sexuality - like the role of the big toe in lovemaking, and the pleasures of a little light bondage - and made people feel comfortable. It sold all over the world, in a myriad of languages, to the tune of 12m copies. It is still selling, with its offspring, New Joy Of Sex, More Joy Of Sex, Pocket Joy Of Sex et al.
That it was a good book is undoubted. Comfort couldn't have written bad English if he tried, and his erudition laced the text to make it worth reading, even if you weren't in search of the perfect orgasm. It was also good because of what it did for so many people's sex lives. Comfort gave his readers permission to regard sex as a normal occupation and a perfectly respectable interest. As an agony aunt, I was happy to recommend Comfort's books rather than my own because they were so effective. I had many letters from people who had found reading Joy Of Sex a liberating experience.
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. The jokes are good; even the science is there. One knows as a reader, at gut level, that this writer got the facts right as well as the feelings. It was no mean feat, and he can rest assured that he will be remembered for the right reasons.
He is survived by a son, and three grandchildren.
David Goodway writes: 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 career.
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 anarchism".
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 years.
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 liter ary. 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.
That Alex packed such a variety of activities into one life is truly remarkable. Whatever the assessment of the value of his research, and of his non-scientific studies, from the standpoint of the 21st century, he will be remembered as someone who left an indelible mark on the one that preceded it.
Alexander Comfort, physician, poet and novelist, born February 10 1920; died March 26 2000