Columbians Ahead of Their Time

"We're still a sexophobic society, afraid of the wrong things for the wrong reason."

Mary Calderone (1904-1998)
Sex Educator
Public Health 1942

Mary Steichen Calderone brought American sexuality out of the closet and into the school nurse's office during the latter half of the 20th century. After an artsy childhood (Calderone was the daughter of photographer Edward Steichen and the niece of poet Carl Sandburg), Calderone pursued a stage career before earning an MD at age 35. Three years later, in 1942, she earned a Master of Public Health degree at Columbia, married, and settled into life as a mother and part-time public school physician. In 1953, however, Calderone combined her love of high drama and her belief in a scientific approach to sexuality by engaging in a public, full-throttle campaign for national sex education as the medical director of Planned Parenthood. She continued her campaign at the Sex Information and Education Center of the United States (SIECUS), which she founded in 1964. As David R. Mace, another founder of SIECUS, explained, SIECUS was created because the country needed an organization of "serious and responsible men and women…liberating human sexuality," and "Mary Calderone was the obvious person to lead it." Calderone also promoted responsible sexual behavior in her well-thumbed primers: The Manual of Contraceptive Practices (1964) and The Family Book about Sexuality (1980). A passionate advocate of education as prevention, Calderone held that children should learn basic facts about sexuality as early as kindergarten, and that birth control, medical information, and treatment for sexually transmitted diseases should be readily available to all.

Calderone came to Columbia after interning at Bellevue hospital in New York City. With a scholarship from the city's public health department, she was able to attend Columbia's MPH program, where she studied under—and then married—Frank Calderone, MD, chief administrative officer of the World Health Organization. The couple had two children together. Dr. Frank Calderone is remembered in a lecture series at the Mailman School of Public Health, where scholars often reflect on the debt that those working against the spread of AIDS owe to Mary Calderone.

The Calderone Lecture at Columbia.

Go Ask Alice, Columbia's online health education service.

Columbians Ahead of Their Time

Columbians have changed the world and how we see it.

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