A Closer Look at William H. Sheldon

William Sheldon was a talented, yet troubled man. He was not a pseudo-scientist (see Sheldon as Pseudo-Scientist, or the New York Times as Tabloid?) because he put the age-old insights of the relationship between body type and temperament on more secure foundations. But he had trouble relating to people, and seems to have wandered off at times into a bitter fog of prejudices which may have gotten worse as he grew older. See John Sample's piece below. But Sheldon had a warmer side that came out in regard to his family. (See Lost Treasures: Unpublished Sheldon Letters Found)

A Closer Look at William H. Sheldon by John S. Sample

In the spring of 1953, I visited William Sheldon, Ph.D., M.D., at the College of Physicians and Surgeons in New York City. I had been exposed to his work on constitutional medicine in college, was fascinated by it and wanted to meet him. Already interested in Carl Jung’s ideas, I found Sheldon’s typologic theories about both temperament and physique to match very closely my own intuitions, formed from much close observation.

He took somatotype-indicating photographs of me to determine scientifically my physical proportions, and I took a self-scoring test of temperament. In both, I measured close to Sheldon’s own numbers!

A 3-4-5 mesomorphic ectomorph, I was in Sheldon’s opinion not strong enough in the upper body to play major league baseball (except for pitcher) or successfully swim the 50 yard freestyle in competition. He challenged my reference to Ted Williams of the Boston Red Sox as the "splendid splinter" (so dubbed by sportswriters), implying that Williams needed a more rugged physique to hit as well as he did.

Without challenging Sheldon, I could think of many exceptions to his claims in several sports… But, as far as I know, no authorities in either sports psychology or physical education had ever disputed his assertions!

Far from a coolly objective social theorist, Sheldon, vituperatively anti-Semitic, favored northern Europeans, particularly Anglo-Saxons, as his preferred racial groups.

At the end of our visit, Sheldon said I could look forward to doing "great things." I think he may have said this because I was a reasonably intelligent, clean-cut Wasp!

I looked into graduate work in Physical Education and Clinical Psychology but got side-tracked due to circumstance, finances, etc. However, I was still mindful of doing "great things." I didn’t see Sheldon for the next 12 years. In the mid-1960s I visited the College of Physicians and Surgeons for a different reason and decided, since I was in the neighborhood, to look him up again.

He was available and we met several more times at the Constitution Laboratory… This time he showed an entirely different side of his personality!

We addressed the subject of World War II and touched on the Holocaust… He launched into a breath-taking diatribe against all Jewry! Far from admitting that six million had been killed in the concentration camps, he maintained that perhaps 250,000 malformed individuals had been eliminated. The six million figure, he claimed, was concocted (in some way) by the Jews themselves in order to enlist world-wide sympathy! Couldn’t I "see this," he wondered, and added, for my enlightenment, that the world’s Jews, through the efforts of powerful families like the Rothschilds, were bent on world domination!

He sent me on my way with a copy of American Nazi Lincoln Rockwell’s biography… Those visits ended my personal contact with William H. Sheldon.


What to Make of William H. Sheldon?

In a New York Time Magazine issue in January ’95, Ron Rosenbaum contributed a cover story on Sheldon, largely assigning him to the category of pseudo science, if not downright quackery. The story, including mention of the somatotypes of George W. Bush, Nora Ephron, Hillary Rodham Clinton, George Pataki among others, suggested that Sheldon’s work involved ruse, too much subjective (Sheldon’s) judgment, and, in general, "loose" scientific method and research.

The fact is in today’s world that cause in human development is swinging back to "nature," after a long emphasis on "nurture." Sheldon’s efforts in the realm of somatotyping, during his heyday, were recognized and approved by such eminent psychologists and social theorists as David Riesman (author of The Lonely Crowd), who discussed in his Harvard classes "the shape people were in;" Abraham Maslow, Brandeis University professor and renowned originator of the "self-actualization theory;" Gardner Lindzey (University of Texas psychologist and editor of Theories of Personality); and Henry Murray (Harvard psychologist and literary critic). All of these men, except Lindzey, discussed Sheldon with me personally. In the literary world, Aldous Huxley was a strong advocate. The linguist/philosopher Charles Morris wrote enthusiastically of Sheldon’s work. In a collection of essays on psychologists entitled The Hidden Remnant, Gerald Sykes prominently mentions Sheldon. William Shakespeare recorded his intuitions about human body types and temperament (similar to Sheldon’s types) in many of his plays.

On balance, we may deplore Sheldon’s rampant bias and overwhelming prejudices, but his contributions to constitutional medicine build significantly on earlier efforts by Cesare Lombroso, Ernst Kretschmer, Francis Galton and other thinkers dating back to the early Greeks.

Constitutional medicine has proven benefits in the solution of problems presented in the fields of disease prediction and treatment, education and vocational choice, among others.

Sheldon’s work can stand by itself. His personal tastes, proclivities and beliefs are another matter entirely.