Big Red Sex Ed


Cornellians owe thanks to faculty and fellow alumni who likely had an impact on their sexual health on campus and beyond.

Gregory Pincus, Class of 1924, co-invented the combined oral contraceptive pill. The first pill, called Envoid, was first approved only for the treatment of menstrual disorders, but in 1960 it gained FDA approval as a contraceptive. Research by Pincus combined with funding and promotion by Planned Parenthood founder Margeret Sanger has resulted in over 100 million women currently taking “the pill.” Pincus would research infertility and in-vitro fertilization, successful work for which he was vilified on a national scale, but with the success of the birth control pill, his accomplishments were recognized by his election to the National Academy of Sciences in 1965.

Joyce Brothers, Class of 1947, helped pioneer the televised advice talk show and claimed to invent media psychology. As a psychologist she reached millions through numerous shows on radio and tv, as well as with several columns and books. Her forthright, but non-threatening manner allowed her to offer insight and advice on a number of sex, relationship, and parenting topics that many felt were taboo, including frigidity, menopause, masturbation, and love. The popularity of her first televised advice show in 1958 paved the way for the multitude of advice shows now available to audiences. In an age before easy online access to information, she deftly fielded questions that may have been too embarrassing to ask elsewhere.

Georgios Papanicolaou, Cornell Medical School faculty, is known for inventing the test bearing his name, commonly called the Pap test or Pap smear. Shortly after arriving in the United States in 1913 he accepted a research position in the Department of Anatomy at the Cornell Medical College. This research position led to a Professorship and a 47 year career working for the University. By discovering that cancerous and precancerous cells could be stained and then observed under a microscope, he gave the world an inexpensive and easy method for the detection of cervical and uterine cancers. His diagnostic technique would later be extended to a number of other areas including respiratory, gastrointestinal, and breast cells.


Nov. 15, 1896 letter from a 23 year old Cornell Junior to Prof. Burt Green Wilder asking for advice regarding the problem of excessive masturbation and whether this made him unfit for marriage. “It was about at the age of puberty that I fell into the solitary vice and practiced it excessively for about four years before my eyes were opened to its evil effects….”

The student referred to a class taken from Prof. Wilder: “Your lecture to the Freshmen opened my eyes to the necessity of keeping the glans clean. Losses became less frequent becoming weekly or less often.” However, he believed the problem returned his Junior year. He reported being “easily excited sexually in the presence of one of the opposite sex,… excessive perspiration, especially in the face, lack of self-confidence, and finally mental depression and discouragement. This last is due to a great extent to the fact that I feel that I must be too weak sexually to ever entertain the idea of marriage and there is a pure young woman in perfect health who thinks more of me than I feel is best because of my weaknesses.”

Prof. Wilder recommended he see Dr. John Winslow. University Archives files show that the student did marry four years later.

No Worries!

Students dressed up along many different themes for the annual race sponsored by the fraternity Phi Psi. These 2 groups of racers show considerable fun with gender and sexual expression.


Nan Gilbert Seymour, class of 1897, went on to receive a medical degree and work as a doctor. While at Cornell, she fenced, received the Cornellian Literary Prize twice, and had her Class book photo taken wearing men’s clothes.

The archives are full of images of cross-dressing students throughout the history of events at Cornell. In 1903 the Women’s crew team was looking quite dapper.

In 1992 the Men’s hockey team exchanged jerseys for tutus as they performed The Nutcracker on ice.


Thanks to the staff of Gannett Clinic’s Contraception, Gynecology, and Sexuality Service (CGSS), students have had access to information, counseling, and medical care for sexual issues since 1971 when Rosalind Kenworthy began as Cornell’s first sex counselor. Gannett has played an important role in sexual assault counseling, AIDS awareness and policy, and safe sex education.

The Dean of Students Sex Education Committee and active students also played a role in improving sex education on campus in the 1970s. Students wrote the first sex ed pamphlet printed in 1970, and Sex Education by and for Cornell Students (SECS) and the Interfraternity Council helped fund the 1971 updated version.

Student Homophile League

In May 1968, a year before the pivotal New York City Stonewall Riots, Cornell students formed a Student Homophile League (SHL). Their group was the second gay student organization in the country, following Columbia University.

Cornell SHL quickly organized to bring “avowed lesbian” Barbara Gittings to campus the next semester. In the fall of 1969, a crowd of 350 attended her lecture, “A Lesbian Speaks for Herself.”

Cornell students marched in New York City’s first Gay Pride March in June 1970 on the first anniversary of the Stonewall Riots, wearing t-shirts they silk-screened themselves outside of Anabel Taylor hall. Cornell students had started a tradition of political activism, education, social events, and support around issues of sexual identity that continues to this day.

Posing & Protest

Cornell’s Alpha Phi chapter runs an Ivy Man contest annually, complete with a muscle-flexing, swim suit competition.

Playboy’s visit to photograph women for its Women of the Ivy League issue in 1979 elicited 340 applicants, more than any other Ivy; a large protest from feminist men and women; and a rowdy group of male jocks who showed support by stripping to their own undies.

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