In Memoriam

Lorna Sarrel, pioneer in human sexuality education and women’s health

Lorna Sarrel, part of a pioneering husband-and-wife team whose initiatives on sex education brought them to national prominence, died on Oct. 13.
Lorna Sarrel
Lorna Sarrel

Lorna Sarrel, part of a pioneering husband-and-wife team whose initiatives on sex education brought them to institutional and national prominence, died on Oct. 13 after a courageous battle with cancer. She was 83 years old.

Sarrel was an instructor and assistant clinical professor of social work in psychiatry at Yale for more than 35 years. She was the co-founder and co-director of the Yale Human Sexuality Program which provided therapy, counseling, and education for the Yale community. With her husband Philip, who is emeritus professor of obstetrics and gynecology and psychiatry at Yale, she co-authored two books and many chapters and papers in the fields of human sexuality and sex therapy. And she lectured widely across the nation on the psycho-social aspect of menopause and on advancing health after hysterectomy.

Lorna and Philip Sarrel rose to prominence at Yale in the late 1960s, when Elga Wasserman, then special assistant to Yale President Kingman Brewster, and Dr. Robert Arnstein, a psychiatrist who was later the chief psychiatrist for the Yale University Health Services, believed that a newly co-educated student body at a moment of cultural change and social upheaval should offer a gynecological service for undergraduate women.

The Sarrels, who were later termed by the Yale Daily News the “Masters and Johnson of Yale” (experts with whom they actually had trained), responded with initiatives that went far beyond whatever Wasserman and Arnstein had imagined. 

They offered students — graduate, professional, and undergraduates alike — something unprecedented: a sex counseling service that offered not simply examinations and contraceptive options, but a form of counseling that was nonexistent at American colleges and universities at the time.

The service allowed students to make individual counseling appointments during which they could ask puzzling questions, discuss their fears and anxieties, consider their values and relationships, and make better informed decisions about their sexual lives. The service was overwhelmingly popular: appointments often had a two-month wait time. 

The key to the service’s success was the Sarrels themselves: they were open, transparent, informative, sensible, unjudgmental, caring, and trusted by all. Lorna was especially liked and appreciated by members of the community. A number of students chose careers in psychiatry because of the influence of both Sarrels.

The Sarrels’ experience with students through the counseling service informed their next initiative, a legendary non-credit course entitled “Topics in Human Sexuality.” During its first year at Yale, in 1970, the course was taken by upwards of 1,300 students, a quarter of the student body. For years afterward the course typically enrolled upwards of 250 students.

The course, which covered material on such subjects as birth control, abortion, sexual response, relationships, pregnancy, venereal disease, and homosexuality, was partially developed by a student committee that worked with the Sarrels as partners in refining the curriculum. The format was six to 10 lectures, followed by discussion sections that were led by trained student discussion group leaders. The format allowed attendees to discuss their reactions in a more intimate group format, with people close to their own ages.

The success of the course led to the creation of a 63-page booklet, “Sex and the Yale Student,” which was distributed to Yale students and which, according to Anne Gardiner Perkins’ book “Yale Needs Women,” went through five editions with more than 40,000 copies distributed by 1990. An extended version, written by the students on the Human Sexuality Committee, with Lorna Sarrel, sold 100,000 copies. President Brewster proudly kept copies of the booklet in the entrance hall of the president’s house at 43 Hillhouse Avenue, inviting visitors to take one if they wished.

The respect that Phil and Lorna Sarrel showed for the values and desires of each student they met with was revolutionary,” wrote Perkins. “They were trying to shift the rules of sex itself and to show it was based on a foundation of good communication and trust.”

Lorna Sarrel was born in 1938 in New York. She met her husband, her partner in work as well as in life, in childhood. “Our houses in Long Island,” Philip Sarrel said, “had adjoining back yards with a white picket fence in between.” In honor of their friendship as they were growing up, a gate was later placed in the fence.

Lorna Sarrell graduated from Mount Holyoke College and received a masters degree in social work from Columbia University. In 1975-76 she was an associate in research in the Department of Psychiatry at Oxford University. Between 1978 and 1981, she was co-principal investigator for a National Institute of Mental Health training grant to train community therapists in the essentials of sex therapy.

For her lifelong work, she was awarded the Mount Holyoke Alumnae Association’s Sesquicentennial Award for outstanding graduates; the President’s Medal from Kirkland College; and, along with her husband, the Seton Elm-Ivy Award for service to the City of New Haven and the University.

Along with their partnership in education about human sexuality, the Sarrels were partners in their avocation of collecting British Biscuit Tins. They amassed a distinguished collection, a part of which has been exhibited at the Yale Center for British Art, and were known world-wide among collectors for their assembly.

Lorna Sarrel is survived by her husband Philip; by her children, Marc and Jennifer; and by a grandson, Evan. The funeral was private, and a memorial service will be held later in the year. In lieu of flowers the family invites you to contribute to Compassion & Choices, the end-of-life organization that Lorna Sarrel strongly supported, and requests that you designate your gift in her memory.

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