Tracking the Elusive Human, Vol. 2

Chapter 6: The World of Somatotypes


It is time to look at some of the literature that has grown up around Sheldon's somatotypes. This will demonstrate further the basic validity of the positions he took and the valuable work he helped inspire.

Studies of Physique

Let's start with Sheldon's longtime colleagues C.W. Dupertuis and his wife and professional associate Helen Stimson Dupertuis, both physical anthropologists and both deeply interested in the anthropometric side of somatotyping. It was Dupertuis who had a role in introducing Sheldon to certain constitutional circles in the United States before World War II. In 1944 Draper, Dupertuis and Caughey published Human Constitution in Clinical Medicine based on their work at the Constitution Clinic at Columbia University founded in 1916. The Clinic had switched to Sheldon's somatotypes in 1940, and their book clearly illustrates how vital it is to analyze basic medical data like blood pressure and basal metabolism against a background of the whole human constitution:

"No one would have a high opinion of a veterinary who called a race horse sick and unable to run just because the animal weighed less than a draft horse of equal height." (p. 149)

They provide averages for the three components of physique and the andric and gynic ratings for duodenal ulcer, gall bladder, diabetes mellitus, diffuse toxic goiter and rheumatoid arthritis, and sound the prophetic note:

"it is fair to say that there is more virgin territory in this field (constitutional physiology) than in almost any other branch of clinical medicine." (p. 163)

In "Be Your Physical Self", the Dupertuises take on the thick accumulation of myths that surround the question of how much we ought to weigh. They dramatically show the inadequacy of the height-weight tables, even when divided into small, medium and large frames, by examining the Cleveland Brown's football team, many of whom, according to the charts, are 40 to 60 pounds overweight. Unless we can determine what size frame we have, we will be unable to determine our proper weight, and so they developed a method of determining frame size from actual skeletal measurements. By measuring 50,000 children and adults from different parts of the world, they have created tables that indicate the weight proportional to the individual's height and bone structure. Unfortunately, these tables have not been published.

Equally regrettable has been the lack of publication of their "Structural Profile", a kind of morphological fingerprint, based on height, weight and skeletal measurements which come from five different body regions. These measurements are plotted on a chart which already indicates the mean measurements of American men and women. When they are plotted a profile emerges that graphically portrays a wealth of information. It can indicate the dysplasias that might exist in a physique, and how this physique compares with others. With three additional measurements, a skeletal version of Sheldon's trunk index, called the Shape Index, can be determined which highly correlates with it and remains constant over time. The Structural Profile thus provides a way in determining the somatotype without the use of photography. It appears an ideal tool with which to do cross-cultural comparisons of physiques, and the Dupertuises have already employed it in various parts of the world. And why hasn't it been published? Perhaps it has suffered from the climate of criticism that surrounded Sheldon's work and prevented his own Trunk Index method from being recognized.

Let's stop and look at the methods that exist to determine somatotypes.

1. After Sheldon arranged his initial series of 4,000 somatotype pictures, he quantified this procedure by the use of 17 measurements plus height and weight, and showed it yielded comparable results. But this quantification was limited to college-age males and was laborious in practice. To facilitate its use S.S. Stevens created a machine that could and did handle most of the calculations, but in the days before computers it was a laborious task and was still limited to that narrow range of age.

2. Sheldon turned to structured observation, or his anthroposcopic method, which temperamentally suited him better. In it the height divided by the cube root of weight provided a clue to a number of possible somatotypes by means of the charts Sheldon provided in the Atlas of Men, and the final determination of which somatotype was to be preferred was done by the comparison of the somatotype photo with the pictures in the Atlas.

3. Still later, as we have seen, he developed the Trunk Index method based on height, maximum weight, and the determination of the Trunk Index. Sheldon provided detailed tables to convert this data into the somatotype number.

4. Now we can add the Dupertuis Structural Profile.

And while Dupertuis and Sheldon were on the long and difficult journey that would lead to a totally objective method, but zigzagged back and forth between observation and objectification for many years, others were following a somewhat similar path.

5. In England R.W. Parnell, in 1954 and 1958, produced two versions of an anthropometric method which attempted to steer between the more observational techniques of Sheldon and the criticisms it was being subjected to, and the factor analytic methods which collapsed the three dimensions into two and which he felt lost significant information. His M-4 method, which did not demand photographs, was based on height over the cube root of weight, three measurements of the subcutaneous fat, two muscle girth measurements and two bone measurements. Parnell was aware that his final three factors were not necessarily identical to Sheldon's, and so he called them fat, muscularity and linearity.

6. In the U.S. Barbara Honeyman Heath who had worked with Sheldon between 1948 and 1953, suggested in 1963 the broadening of Sheldon's observational methods by employing the following modifications: opening the 7-point rating scale, opening the limited sums of the components that Sheldon had adhered to, relating the height-weight ratio more linearly to the somatotype, and eliminating the interpolations for age. Later, in 1967, with J.E.L. Carter, she developed a modified somatotype method which combined her modifications of Sheldon's judgments of somatotype photos with Parnell's M-4 techniques.

This method has been widely employed. Carter, for example, has used it extensively in connection with physical fitness and competitive athletics studying world class body-builders, Olympic competitors, children in sports, and so forth. Carter and Heath have a new book in press: Somatotyping: Development and Application, which will hopefully illuminate many of the byways in the development of the various methods, as well as their applications.

The use of somatotypes in combination with exact measurements reached a certain maturity in the work of James Tanner, a noted English specialist on human growth. Tanner had come to the U.S. with a group of medical students at the beginning of WWII, and eventually worked with both Sheldon and Dupertuis. His work has included directing the Harpenden Growth Study, which ran from 1948 to 1971, and publishing an Atlas of Children's Growth: Normal Variation and Growth Disorders. The Atlas provides an excellent example of modern somatotyping in which the old quarrels are transcended. Here we can see how the various difficulties in somatotyping have been dealt with in practice. He provides photos that illustrate: both the difficulty and feasibility of somatotyping children, how well the somatotypes of children match their adult somatotypes (following Walker and Tanner, 1980), the issue of the relative constancy of size and shape during childhood, longitudinal series of monozygotic twins that tracks their development from childhood to maturity, and series of men somatotypes which show what kind of changes they undergo during adulthood. This Atlas not only carefully documents the many difficult problems in scientific somatotyping, but it also demonstrates, without any fanfare, the underlying continuity of somatotype that Sheldon was attempting to show for so long.

Earlier, in 1964, Tanner published a study of 137 track and field athletes at the Olympic games in Rome. This makes fascinating reading because the somatotype charts clearly indicate how certain kinds of physiques dominate certain sports. The physiques of the sprinters are different from those of the distance and marathon runners: 2.5-5.5-3 for the sprinters and 2.5-4-4 for the marathon runners. Similarly, competitors in the discus, javelin and shot and hammer have highly mesomorphic physiques: 3-6-2 or 3.5-6-2. The somatotype charts also clearly indicate that many of us do not have much Olympic potential. Half the somatotypes present in the general population are not found among the athletes. And though most of us have already become aware of the fact that we will not be Olympic champions, it is another matter for youthful competitors who might benefit from a more realistic evaluation of their potential based on the ever-growing literature on somatotypes and athletes, as well as a knowledge of their own somatotype and its dysplasias.

G. Petersen, a doctor from the Netherlands, produced an Atlas for Somatotyping Children in 1967. It follows closely Sheldon's Atlas of Men, though Petersen found some somatotypes not in the Atlas. And instead of using Sheldon's large format cameras he used a 35mm.

With all the different methods of somatotyping in existence, it was both natural and inevitable that they would be compared. We have already seen a comparison between Sheldon's anthroposcopic or observational method, and his Trunk Index method in the article by Walker and Tanner. In a follow-up study of the subjects in the Varieties of Delinquent Youth, the Trunk Index method was employed which allows us to compare it to Sheldon's initial somatotype ratings. We will see some of these differences in a later section. In 1965 Haronian and Sugarman did a comparison of Sheldon and Parnell's methods. In 1966 Heath and Carter compared Heath's modified method with Parnell's. In 1979 María Villanueva Sagrado in her short book, Manual de Técnicas Somatotipológicas presented and compared Sheldon's Trunk Index method with those of Parnell, Heath and Heath and Carter. She somatotyped 300 male subjects using the four methods, and concluded that the methods produced different results. She favored Sheldon's because of its biological grounding, so important in medical and psychiatric work. Conscious, too, of the expense of photographic somatotype work, she mentions a study by Stoute (1971) who used a "camera clara", instead of photographs, to determine the Trunk Index.

In 1980 Claessens and his associates at the two branches of the University of Leuven in Belgium were in search of a somatotyping technique. They somatotyped 132 young men using Sheldon's anthroposcopic method, his Trunk Index method, and the methods of Parnell, and Heath and Carter. They found a high agreement between the two Sheldon methods, and between the Parnell and Heath and Carter methods, but they also found differences between the two agreeing pairs on the question of the rating of mesomorphy. In a comparison between the ratings of mesomorphy and 24 motor ability tests, Sheldon's techniques related significantly to 16 of the tests, Parnell to 8, and Heath and Carter's to 4. The authors then developed a hybrid method using the methods of Parnell, and Heath and Carter to estimate endomorphy and ectomorphy, with a final evaluation of somatotypes dependent on the Atlas of Men.

Somatotypes have found a particularly durable employment in the field of delinquency and criminology. Perhaps the best known aspect of the Varieties of Delinquent Youth is that the young men on the whole are more mesomorphic and less ectomorphic than both the general population and their collegiate counterparts. This assertion caused a certain stir at the time of its publication, but subsequent studies have reaffirmed it time and again. For example, Sheldon Glueck and Eleanor Glueck in Physique and Delinquency (1956) compared almost 500 delinquents with 500 non-delinquents, and they found that roughly 60% of the delinquents were mesomorphic compared with 30% of the non-delinquents.

Cortés and Gatti in their Delinquency and Crime: A Biopsychosocial Approach, studied 100 delinquent boys, 100 non-delinquent boys, and 20 criminals. They used Parnell's method of somatotyping and found that 57 out of the 100 delinquents were mesomorphs compared to 19 out of the 100 non-delinquents. They made a determined effort both in method and in language to distance themselves from Sheldon, but their results were quite similar. For example, the mean somatotype of their delinquents were 3.5-4.4-3.1, whereas the mean somatotype of 150 of the delinquents of Sheldon was 3.5-4.5-2.8. And the more overt criminals were higher in mesomorphy. Cortés and Gatti also confirmed Sheldon's work when it was a question of the relationship between somatotype and temperament, as we have seen. More recently Wilson and Herrnstein have summed up the evidence favoring Sheldon in their Crime and Human Nature.

In two additional studies of mate and female adolescents at the Anneewakee Treatment Center in Georgia, Horace Stewart used Sheldon's Trunk Index method to determine the somatotypes of 60 female and 194 male youth. In both cases the groups were highly mesomorphic. The therapeutic program at the Center made use of the relationship between physique and somatotype to develop a suitable program.

The evidence that can be construed in favor of Sheldon's basic formulations does not have to be restricted to comparisons of rating scales and physique, but can embrace factor analytic studies, as well. Burdick and Tess measured 159 photos in the Atlas of Men according to 36 different characteristics. Analysis of this data produced a number of factors, six of which they analyzed in their study. They felt that the first three major factors could be related to Parnell's fat, muscularity and linearity. And though there was an effect of age on somatotypes, they found a separate age factor, as well as one they called ideal, which indicated a "positive, aesthetic impact" (p. 513), which would make a student of Sheldon immediately think of his t index, but here, apparently represented something somewhat different. Their results shed some light on the question of whether it is reasonable to speak of three components rather than two, and the authors recognize the differences that exist between the various somatotyping systems and provide mathematical methods of converting their muscularity, linearity and fat to Sheldon's somatotypes.

Claessens and his associates (1985) studied 210 Belgian school boys from ages 13 to 18. They determined the somatotypes of these boys by the Heath-Carter method, and examined the physiques by factor analysis as well. They found 4 basic factors: "(1) a fat-massiveness factor; (2) a thoracical massiveness factor; (3) a limb width factor; and (4) a factor of length development of the trunk relative to the limbs." (p. 23)

Endomorphy was roughly equivalent to the fat-massiveness factor. Ectomorphy was the opposite pole of endomorphy and mesomorphy. And mesomorphy was highly related to the limb-width factor, and in a lesser degree, to the chest and fat factors. The boys, whether measured by factor analysis or somatotypes, revealed a considerable degree of stability during these teen-age years.

This issue of stability was examined at greater length in another paper (1986) in which the authors concluded: "Besides skeletal shape, total body shape, as expressed by the somatotype, can also be fairly well predicted from earlier ages, although there are some findings that the mesomorphic component is "difficult to spot"." (p. 242) These results are in good agreement with Walker and Tanner (1980) and the Tanner and Whitehouse findings in Atlas of Children's Growth.

It would be possible to pursue the use of somatotypes at the morphological level in much more detail, but this would take us too far afield into the technical details of somatotyping. What can we make of what we have already seen? If for a time Sheldon's work seemed to be buried under a growing wave of criticism, it should be clear by now that the basic methods of somatotyping are sound, and they are actually being employed. But clearly the trend has been towards the more objective methods, as might be expected, and their use at the physical more than the psychological level. For example, in a recent search in Biological Abstracts from 1984 and including part of 1987, the word "somatotype" appeared in 23 titles. Most of the items dealt with physical applications: J.E.L. Carter's "Somatotypes of Olympic Athletes from 1948-1976", a study by Claessens and his colleagues, "Body Structure, Somatotype and Motor Fitness of Top-Class Belgian Judoists", and so forth.

There was little, however, on the temperamental side of Sheldon's work, and what was done was usually of the order of somatotyping a group of subjects and administering a test like Cattell's 16-PF and seeing what results emerge, or analyzing culturally conditioned body type stereotypes. But let us examine a number of studies, new and old, that do focus on the question of the relationship between somatotype and temperament.

Studies of Physique and Temperament

One of the most detailed studies of the relationship in this area was carried out by Richard Walker and his associates on nursery school children. He began by making a valuable survey of previous work. This included a study of one hundred 6 and 7-yearolds by Davidson, McKinnes and Parnell who were somatotyped by Parnell's method, given standardized tests and had their mothers interviewed. Another was by Hanley, who took 12 to 14-year-old boys whose reputations at that time were compared to their somatotypes at age 18. A third was by Glueck and Glueck in which delinquent and non-delinquent boys were compared by physique, and with data coming from physical exams, Rorschach ratings and psychiatric evaluations. He also included the study of college sophomores, by Child, which we have seen before, as well as one by Cabot who used Kretschmer's typology. Walker combined these studies into one table, which makes interesting reading, for the portrait that emerges from these combined studies matches fairly well the descriptions given by Sheldon in the Varieties of Temperament. The endomorph communicates feelings easily, is confident, shows genital underdevelopment, is described as sensuous and conventional, and so forth. The mesomorph has explosive rages, is a social leader, looks people right in the eye, withstands pain easily, etc., while the ectomorph is anxious and has nervous habits, is bashful, prefers few intimate friends to many, is sensitive and aesthetic, and so on.

In Walker's own study 125 children from 2 1/2 to almost 5 years old were rated for their somatotypes and on a specially devised 63-item scale. The somatotypes, done visually from standard photographs, were the average of ratings by three separate judges: Walker himself, who was acquainted with the children, and two other judges who worked solely from the photographs. The rating scale for each child was filled out by 4 or 5 teachers, of which at least 3 had no idea what the study was about. Out of all the 292 previously made predictions, "73% were confirmed in direction and 21% were confirmed beyond the .05 level, while 3% were disconfirmed beyond the .05 level. The mesomorphic boys and girls came out competitive, self-assertive, easily angered, etc." And it is interesting to note that the "girls combined this assertiveness with socialness, cheerfulness and warmth" (p. 87), which makes us think of our proposed distinction of the male mesomorphs being principally extraverted thinkers and the female mesomorphs being extraverted feelers. The ectomorphs showed aloofness, indirect problem -solving, daydreaming, etc. The picture of the endomorphs was more obscure, for it seemed influenced by endomorphy's relationship to mesomorphy, and the children in this category appeared aggressive, quarrelsome, easily angered, etc. Walker concludes, "that in this group of preschool children important associations do exist between individual's physiques and particular behavior characteristics. Further, these associations show considerable similarity to those described by Sheldon for college-aged men, though the strength of association is not as strong as he reports." (p. 79)

These same children plus an additional year's class were rated by their mothers by means of 68 descriptive adjectives and phrases. Much the same kind of results emerged, though weaker. What is amazing is not that Walker's study showed lower correlations than Sheldon's original work, but that it found the relationships it did considering the difficulties involved in such an approach. The somatotypes were evaluated by three judges anthroposcopically, but each judge had a highly distinctive method. And children are harder to somatotype, in any event. In addition, it is difficult enough to evaluate temperamental traits in fully formed personality. Imagine trying to pin down these qualities in a 2-year-old!

Considering the studies that Walker has summarized, and his own, he is well justified in citing Diamond's comments in Personality and Temperament that there is:

"... an overwhelming confirmation of the general validity of Sheldon's theories. Few propositions in the field of personality can claim to have stronger experimental support... Unfortunately, Sheldon's views have had so poor an audience among psychologists that some moral courage is required to confess to this degree of agreement with them". (p. 4)

In "Sheldon's Physical-psychical Typology Revisited" (1984) Janssen and Whiting took the first order factors underlying Cattell's extraversion-introversion, and had 100 Dutch university students assign these qualities to photographs of the extreme ectomorph, the extreme mesomorph and the extreme endomorph. The qualities from Cattell's Q and E positive poles, that is, self-sufficient, resourceful, prefers own decisions, and assertive, aggressive, stubborn, were associated with the mesomorph, while the qualities of the A and F positive poles, warm-hearted, outgoing, easygoing, participating and enthusiastic, heedless, happy-go-lucky, were related most strongly to the endomorph, while the characteristics of the H negative pole, shy, timid, restrained, threat-sensitive, were associated with the ectomorph. These relationships were graphically portrayed by a computer program that showed correlations as a function of distance so that the shorter distances represented higher correlations. What emerged is something similar to Sheldon's basic somatotype diagram.

Instead of there being simply a dichotomy of introversion and extraversion, we see extraversion breaking down, as the authors note, into an extraversion of action and an extraversion of affect. They also had the students choose what they considered the ideal body type, which turned out, as could be imagined, the mesomorph, and this confirmed the many studies of body stereotypes that have been conducted in which the mesomorph is most favored, and the endomorph least favored. It is also interesting to note that while approximately one quarter of the students thought there was a relationship between personality and body type, more than one half thought there wasn't.

In other somatotyping literature we find a wide variety of use being made of Sheldon's formulations. Robert Lenski, for example, reanalyzed the data on the 200 men in Sheldon's Varieties of Temperament in terms of the racial identifications, i.e., Nordic, Alpine, etc., that Sheldon gives for these cases but never makes use of. His results show that the different racial groupings have different characteristics, or put another way, the frequency of the different somatotypes appears to vary in different racial and national groups. While the vast majority of genetic variation is to be found within groups rather than between them, there are differences between groups, and one of the best ways to examine them would be the different frequencies of somatotypes and psychological types. Lenski does it anecdotally, as well, by analyzing the traditionally recognized differences between the English and the Italians, embodied in Emerson's "English Traits" and Barzini's The Italians.

Roberts and Bainbridge traveled to the southern Sudan in the Upper Nile province, and studied the somatotypes of the Shilluk and Dinka peoples who are among the most ectomorphic in the world. They found that Sheldon's 7 in ectomorphy seemed too moderate a way to describe some of the physiques they were seeing. Eventually they decided that it ought to be extended out to include such somatotypes as the 1-2-8 and the 1-1-9, whose extraordinary photographs they include in their article.

A fascinating sequel to this research would be a psychological study geared to discovering the temperament and psychological type of these world champion ectomorphs. The authors also compared the distribution of the Nilotic people, which is rather tightly grouped in the ectomorphic section of Sheldon's somatotype chart, with other research that has been carried on East Africans (more mesomorphic ectomorphs) and the Japanese of North Honshu (endomorphic mesomorphs).

Finally, among somatotyping literature R.W. Parnell's Behavior and Physique: An Introduction to Practical and Applied Somatometry should hold a special place because of its extensive coverage of a whole variety of topics based on Parnell's own research. In a fascinating collection of somatotype charts he summarizes his investigations in topics as diverse as "The Body Build of Mr. Universe Contestants", "What Type of Women have the Most Male Offspring?", "Who Gets Married at What Ages?", "The Somatotypes of Physical Education Teachers", "Of Boys Described as Anxious and Girls as Meticulous", and the somatotypes of people suffering from different psychiatric disorders.

And if Sheldon's temperaments represent the clarification of a long tradition, then we would expect them to appear in various ways in various places, even when there is apparently no direct relationship with his work. The enneagram whose origins are reputedly in the distant past and which has become popular today through the work of Oscar Ichazo, describes nine kinds of personalities, three of which are quite close to Sheldon's temperaments. Personality V includes the following qualities: "I need much private time and space", "I often sit back and observe other people rather than get involved", "I seem to be more silent than others", "People often ask me what I am thinking". "I don't know how to engage in small talk very well", and so forth, all of which would, of course, fit Sheldon's ectotonic personality.

In contrast, we are told about Personality VIII: "I enjoy the exercise of power", "I am very good at standing up and fighting for what I want", "I know how to get things done", "Generally I don't care much for introspection or too much self-analysis", which is roughly equivalent to Sheldon's mesotonic.

And Personality IX is said to agree with most of the following statements: "I am an extremely easygoing person", "I can't remember the last time I had trouble sleeping", "Most people get too worked up over things", "My attitude is: I don't let it bother melt, which is Sheldon's endotonic.

What conclusions are we led to after this somewhat laborious review of Sheldonian literature? The substantial core of Sheldon's work has stood the test of time and can be verified by practical experience and observation, as well as by objective testing. What caused the decline of interest in Sheldon's work cannot be laid to the work itself, but should be searched for in the psychological climate of the 1940s and 1950s, and in Sheldon's own personality.




Back to Psychology

Chapter 7