Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

The Bad Pennies, Part 1

with one comment

For the last couple of months, I’ve been trying to pull together the tangled ends of a story that seems so complicated—and which encompasses so many unlikely personalities—that I doubt that I’ll ever get to the bottom of it, at least not without devoting more time to the project than I currently have to spare. (It really requires a good biography, and maybe two, and in the meantime, I’m just going to throw out a few leads in the hopes that somebody else will follow up.) It centers on a man named William Herbert Sheldon, who was born in 1898 and died in 1977. Sheldon was a psychologist and numismatist who received his doctorate from the University of Chicago and studied under Carl Jung. He’s best known today for his theory of somatotypes, which classified all human beings into degrees of endomorph, mesomorph, or ectomorph, based on their physical proportions. Sheldon argued that an individual’s build was an indication of character and ability, as Ron Rosenbaum wrote over twenty years ago in a fascinating investigative piece for the New York Times:

[Sheldon] believed that every individual harbored within him different degrees of each of the three character components. By using body measurements and ratios derived from nude photographs, Sheldon believed he could assign every individual a three-digit number representing the three components, components that Sheldon believed were inborn—genetic—and remained unwavering determinants of character regardless of transitory weight change. In other words, physique equals destiny.

Sheldon’s work carried obvious overtones of eugenics, even racism, which must have been evident to many observers even at the time. (In the early twenties, Sheldon wrote a paper titled “The Intelligence of Mexican Children,” in which he asserted that “Negro intelligence” comes to a “standstill at about the tenth year.”) And these themes became even more explicit in the writings of his closest collaborator, the anthropologist Earnest A. Hooton. In the fifties, Hooton’s “research” on the physical attributes that were allegedly associated with criminality was treated with guarded respect even by the likes of Martin Gardner, who wrote in his book Fads and Fallacies:

The theory that criminals have characteristic “stigmata”—facial and bodily features which distinguish them from other men—was…revived by Professor Earnest A. Hooton, of the Harvard anthropology faculty. In a study made in the thirties, Dr. Hooton found all kinds of body correlations with certain types of criminality. For example, robbers tend to have heavy beards, diffused pigment in the iris, attached ear lobes, and six other body traits. Hooton must not be regarded as a crank, however—his work is too carefully done to fall into that category—but his conclusions have not been accepted by most of his colleagues, who think his research lacked adequate controls.

Gardner should have known better. Hooton, like Sheldon, was obsessed with dividing up human beings on the basis of their morphological characteristics, as he wrote in the Times in 1936: “Our real purpose should be to segregate and eliminate the unfit, worthless, degenerate and anti-social portion of each racial and ethnic strain in our population, so that we may utilize the substantial merits of the sound majority, and the special and diversified gifts of its superior members.”

Sheldon and Hooton’s work reached its culmination, or nadir, in one of the strangest episodes in the history of anthropology, which Rosenbaum’s article memorably calls “The Great Ivy League Nude Posture Photo Scandal.” For decades, such institutions as Harvard College had photographed incoming freshmen in the nude, supposedly to look for signs of scoliosis and rickets. Sheldon and Hooton took advantage of these existing programs to take nude photos of students, both male and female, at colleges including Harvard, Radcliffe, Princeton, Yale, Wellesley, and Vassar, ostensibly to study posture, but really to gather raw data for their work on somatotypes. The project went on for decades, and Rosenbaum points out that the number of famous alumni who had their pictures taken staggers the imagination: “George Bush, George Pataki, Brandon Tartikoff and Bob Woodward were required to do it at Yale. At Vassar, Meryl Streep; at Mount Holyoke, Wendy Wasserstein; at Wellesley, Hillary Rodham and Diane Sawyer.” After some diligent sleuthing, Rosenbaum determined that most of these photographs were later destroyed, but a collection of negatives survived at the National Anthropological Archives in the Smithsonian, where he was ultimately allowed to view some of them. He writes of the experience:

As I thumbed rapidly through box after box to confirm that the entries described in the Finder’s Aid were actually there, I tried to glance at only the faces. It was a decision that paid off, because it was in them that a crucial difference between the men and the women revealed itself. For the most part, the men looked diffident, oblivious. That’s not surprising considering that men of that era were accustomed to undressing for draft physicals and athletic-squad weigh-ins. But the faces of the women were another story. I was surprised at how many looked deeply unhappy, as if pained at being subjected to this procedure. On the faces of quite a few I saw what looked like grimaces, reflecting pronounced discomfort, perhaps even anger.

And it’s clearly the women who bore the greatest degree of lingering humiliation and fear. Rumors circulated for years that the pictures had been stolen and sold, and such notable figures as Nora Ephron, Sally Quinn, and Judith Martin speak candidly to Rosenbaum of how they were haunted by these memories. (Quinn tells him: “You always thought when you did it that one day they’d come back to haunt you. That twenty-five years later, when your husband was running for president, they’d show up in Penthouse.” For the record, according to Rosenbaum, when the future Hillary Clinton attended Wellesley, undergraduates were allowed to take the pictures “only partly nude.”) Rosenbaum captures the unsavory nature of the entire program in terms that might have been published yesterday:

Suddenly the subjects of Sheldon’s photography leaped into the foreground: the shy girl, the fat girl, the religiously conservative, the victim of inappropriate parental attention…In a culture that already encourages women to scrutinize their bodies critically, the first thing that happens to these women when they arrive at college is an intrusive, uncomfortable, public examination of their nude bodies.

If William Herbert Sheldon’s story had ended there, it would be strange enough, but there’s a lot more to be told. I haven’t even mentioned his work as a numismatist, which led to a stolen penny scandal that rocked the world of coin collecting as deeply as the nude photos did the Ivy League. But the real reason I wanted to talk about him involves one of his protégés, whom Sheldon met while teaching in the fifties at Columbia. His name was Walter H. Breen, who later married the fantasy author Marion Zimmer Bradley—which leads us in turn to one of the darkest episodes in the entire history of science fiction. I’ll be talking more about this tomorrow.

Written by nevalalee

December 3, 2018 at 8:35 am

One Response

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  1. What a story! At first glance, it reminded me of the recent story “Donald Trump thought Yellen was too short to be Fed chair.” https://www.washingtonpost.com/business/2018/12/03/trump-thought-yellen-was-too-short-be-fed-chair-thats-not-how-any-this-works/?utm_term=.8df386080310

    Andrea Kenner

    December 5, 2018 at 7:20 am


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