Sheldon as Pseudo-Scientist,
or the New York Times as Tabloid?

William Sheldon was a talented, yet troubled man. He was not a pseudo-scientist (see below) 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 A Closer Look at William H. Sheldon. But Sheldon had a warmer side that came out in regard to his family. (See Lost Treasures: Unpublished Sheldon Letters Found.)


Exposed! A Bizarre Ritual! Photographs taken of the nation's young elite - undressed! Were top schools duped by cunning pseudo-scientists?

So screamed the headlines complete with photos of the elder George Bush, and Hillary Rodham, and others, of what we would first take as a supermarket tabloid fantasy. In actual fact, this was the cover of the once "only the news that is fit to print" New York Times on Jan. 15, 1995 in an article by Ron Rosenbaum, "The Great Ivy League Nude Posture Photo Scandal: How scientists coaxed America's best and brightest out of their clothes."

The story is about the reporter's quest for thousands of nude photos taken at Ivy League schools decades ago in experiments that were supposed to have something to do with posture. Unfortunately, the tone of the cover, which we could excuse as a spoof on the tabloids, makes its way into the body of the article, itself. What could have been a story about informed consent, or the lack of it, in the 1930s to the 1960s when thousands of people, both men and women, were photographed nude for a variety of purposes, ends up looking like a pretext to send ridicule in all directions: the students, themselves, coaxed out of their clothes, the institutions duped by pseudo-scientists, and the pseudo-scientists, themselves, and at the center is Sheldon, himself, staring up at us from the page wearing a slightly fatuous grin.

The reporter who had gone to Yale, himself, had been photographed in the nude with metal pins attached to his spine in some sort of posture study. But throughout the article he does not distinguish these kinds of posture experiments from Sheldon's work and standard somatotype photos which had nothing to do with posture.Did he hide under the mask of posture studies? I don't know, and neither does the author.  Sheldon is the most visible target, and so becomes the master pseudo-scientist behind the posture photo scandal, whether he took certain photos or not.

The whole idea of how the "cultural elite" were tricked out of their clothes, and now have their nude pictures floating around ready to surface at the worst possible moment was undoubtedly a story hard to resist. But it is interesting to speculate whether the article would ever have been written if it were not a question of students at Ivy League schools rather than elsewhere. Sheldon, for example, took tens of thousands of photos at colleges, but also of military personnel and mental hospital patients. If the story is really about informed consent, it is surprising that these other people get pushed in the corner. What we hear about is the discomfort of the Ivy League students. And they have a right to feel taken advantage of. But the author goes out of his way to magnify their discomfort.

The story goes on to suggest that the photos represented just the most visible signs of a sinister plot which he will now uncover. He interviews a Yale art history professor, George Hersey, who tells him something of the work of E.A. Hooton and Sheldon, and states that the Nazis had similar photo archives.  Rosenbaum gushes: "A truly breathtaking missive. What Hersey seemed to be saying was that entire generations of America's ruling class had been unwitting guinea pigs in a vast eugenic experiment run by scientists with a master-race hidden agenda." (p. 30)

Two points need to be addressed. The first is the reporter's heroic request to find these thousands of nude photos, and the second is Sheldon as a master-race theorist.

Actually, there never was much of a mystery about where the photos were and what they were like. Rosenbaum finally tracks down Roland Elderkin, one of Sheldon's collaborators and disciples, who was then 84 years old living in a furnished room in Columbus, Ohio. Elderkin wants nothing more than to bring Sheldon's work back to a world that has largely forgotten it because of the value he sees in it, and the role he played in its development. As could be expected, the appearance of this kind of article was a great blow to him. "I am thoroughly, simply devastated," he commented afterwards. (Columbus Dispatch, Jan. 18, 1995.) Elderkin tells Rosenbaum that the photos are in the Anthropological Archives of the Smithsonian Institution.

As I said, this was really no real secret at all. I saw the photos myself in the late 1980s, and mentioned them, and their location in my 1990 book, Tracking the Elusive Human, Volume 2. Similar photos have been available since 1954 in Sheldon's Atlas of Men. Hersey is quoted as saying "that the photos had no value as pornography" is a tribute to their resolutely scientific nature. This is certainly true, and I might add that their erotic value rated somewhere under the level of your National Geographic magazine. They are simply thousands of photos of young nude bodies in standard somatotype poses without any indications that I noticed of names. Perhaps the one real issue about these photos is the lack of consent from the students who were made to pose for them. This is the one point in the article where the author engages our sympathy, for he paints a touching picture of the embarrassment, especially of the young women, both at the time these pictures were taken and the concern of what happened to these photos later. This kind of mass nude photo shoot without individual consent should not have happened. Why did the schools allow it? Probably because like most large institutions, then and now, they often don't think first of the rights and personal needs of their students, but rather, of their own agendas, scientific or otherwise. But the author mars the sympathy he has engendered when we realize that the very act of writing this kind of article is to inflame the discomfort that these young women and men felt.

But what of Sheldon's motivation? He wanted standard somatotype photos for his studies, and no doubt convinced the school authorities to cooperate. And what were Sheldon's studies for? Was he a master-race theorist? There is no real evidence to support that, as the author, himself, admits. But he does find some indications that Sheldon was a racist. Is this allegation true? It probably is, but not in the normal conventional sense. We have only to read Sheldon's 1949 Varieties of Delinquent Youth to hear him sneering at the mothers of the young delinquents he was studying, and how the country was being ruined by mongrelized breeding. While I have never looked into the question of whether Sheldon was a master-race-type eugenist, I did get a little sense of the way in which he was a racist. He probably did make remarks about various minority groups, but this was just part of his wider troubled and sarcastic nature. He struck out in all directions. He was an equal opportunity antagonizer. He railed against Franklin D. Roosevelt and cigarettes, about politicians and especially academics. In one well-known anecdote he was part of a Ph.D. examination, and when the candidate he considered insufficiently prepared passed, he decided he now had the right to call anyone he wanted to "Doctor," which he did, to people's discomfort when he addressed the elevator operator as "Doctor." He particularly antagonized those people of influence at institutions of higher learning who wanted to give him a place in which to carry on his work, as well as the people who made up his own inner circle. In another story one of his three ex-wives told, she posed the question that after all these criticisms, just who was left standing? And she answered the question by saying, "The Sheldons, of course," referring to the fact that Sheldon came from an old New England family which symbolized in his mind a kinder, gentler America than the one he saw around him now. It was this attitude on Sheldon's part that accounts for much of the oblivion into which Sheldon's work fell.

Was Sheldon a pseudo-scientist whose work can be casually dismissed with a little wave that says "the textbooks no longer mention him?" He was a serious very well-trained psychologist, and in some ways a brilliant one. He worked in a creative way on the perennial question that can be traced to the early Greeks and to ancient India about the relationship between bodily form and temperament. And some of his work has enduring value. From the perspective of outer bodily form it addressed questions that modern genetics is just beginning to unravel from the inside. We possess different kinds of bodies, and much of these differences are genetically based, and we possess different kinds of genetically based temperaments, and it is not a bad bet that the two are connected. The real question is not whether such differences exist, but the ethical one of what we are going to do about them.