To your right are three examples of the infamous Ivy League “posture photos” (the linked story, uncredited, is by Ron Rosenbaum), which don’t offer much in the way of prurient interest from an official purveyor of pornography, but it’s the best I can do. For twenty years, from the late 1940s to the late 1960s, at the Ivy League and the Seven Sisters, freshmen were herded into the nurse’s office and snapped nude from three angles. Meryl Streep (Vassar). Hillary Rodham (Wellesley). My mother (Smith), to whom it didn’t occur until ten years later that there might be something untoward about it. That these same photographs were taken at the same time outside the Ivy League apparently bothered no one. It’s fine to take nude photographs of Army recruits and other such riff-raff, but Girls of the Ivy League? Quel horreur!
Behind the posture photos was one William Sheldon, a psychologist whose body-typing theories, highly respectable at the time, provided most of their rationale. He published many of them in his Atlas of Men and intended to publish many more in an Atlas of Women, unfortunately never completed. I happened upon a copy of one of his books, Varieties of Temperament, which shows his talents to lie more in the literary than the visual arts. Varieties of Temperament concludes with capsule summaries of Sheldon’s 200 subjects. Some are savage:
An expansive, popular, garrulous young man who wasted his time as a medical student, but has since become an oculist with quite a lucrative business building up. Has joined the Masons and one or two other fraternal organizations of that sort. He is married to a gluttonous, gleeful little 6-3-1. They set a fine table.
(6-3-1 is a “somatotype,” about which much, much more below.)
A weak, baffled undergraduate to whom college is like a bad dream. He wants to cry on somebody’s shoulder but is instead required to attend gymnasium classes.
Some are shrewd:
Has as unpleasant a disposition as is often met. He suggests a partly tamed native gray rat among a generally well-behaved colony of white ones. He continually bares his teeth, although he rarely bites… Many adopt the tolerant attitude toward him that is often shown toward a noisy terrier.
…he has been accused vaguely of homosexuality, but he is in fact strongly heterosexual, and now that his academic career is securely under way he devotes perhaps a disproportionately great amount of time to the sexual pursuit. He has no etchings but his collection of symphonies has begun to grow a bit notorious.
Occasionally he seems to have been gotten the best of:
A young rabbi studying psychology. Polite, ceremonious, yet watchful and critical. His fine black eyes are disconcertingly observant. He is hyperattentional and overly intent.
All make the best bathroom reading you could hope for. Do any other shrinks write like this when no one is looking? And who was William Sheldon anyway?
Sheldon was born in 1898, grew up rural in Rhode Island, and as boy became an expert enough shot to be able to hit a marble thrown 20 feet in the air, which skill he demonstrated to Annie Oakley. He took an M.D. and Ph.D at the University of Chicago in the 1920s, began his teaching career there and at the University of Wisconsin and moved to Harvard in 1940, where he did his best work, published in The Varieties of Human Physique (1940) and The Varieties of Temperament (1942).
He was divorced twice and was apparently not the easiest of men to get on with. At Harvard he served on a Ph.D. examination committee that passed a student he considered unprepared. Sheldon concluded that the term “Doctor” no longer had meaning, and for some time insisted on addressing everyone on campus, including the elevator man, as “Doctor,” embarrassing his faculty colleagues, and no doubt the elevator man.
Sheldon enjoyed a great vogue for a while. Life magazine devoted a cover story to him in 1951, and his disciples included Aldous Huxley, who credited Sheldon with much of his success. The rise of behaviorism did his reputation in. Skinnerian psychology made his theories glacially unfashionable, and he died, bitter and forgotten, in 1977, having published almost nothing for more than 20 years.
Folk wisdom has it that temperament and physique are related: fat people are reputed jolly, short people “Napoleonic,” tall and thin people “awkward,” and so forth. Sheldon set out to ground this scientifically. He distinguished among three “somatotypes,” as he called them — endomorphy, mesomorphy, and ectomorphy; the terms are still with us. Each body type has a corresponding temperament: viscerotonic (endomorph), somatotonic (mesomorph), and cerebrotonic (ectomorph). Sheldon ranked his subjects according to their endowment of each body type, and temperament, on a 7-point scale. Although we now tend to think of people as one type or the other, the pure endo (7-1-1), meso (1-7-1), or ecto (1-1-7) turns out, in Sheldon’s system, to be extremely rare. He concluded that temperament usually matches physique nearly exactly, with at most a point difference on each of the three scales.
Like Freud, Sheldon fancied himself a scientist; Varieties of Temperament is full of scales, indices, and standard deviations. As he describes his own procedure:
First a list of 650 alleged traits of temperament was collected… These were sifted, condensed, and described as systematically as possible. A few contributions from our own observation were added, and the list was finally reduced to 50 traits which seemed to embrace all of the ideas [emphasis his] represented in the original 650. The 50 traits were then incorporated into a simple 5-point graphic rating scale (later expanded to a 7-point scale)… Then began the tedious process of analyzing a series of subjects in order to rate them in these 50 traits…
We then proceeded to build up lists of such clusters of traits as showed consistently positive intercorrelations among themselves, much after the manner of building up suits in a game of cards…we soon found that three groups of traits showed positive intercorrelation among themselves, and negative correlation with all or nearly all of the other traits…
…we set up two quite arbitrary criteria for determining the qualification of a trait within one of the nuclear groups. First, the trait must show a positive correlation of +.60 with every other trait in its nuclear group. Second, it must show a negative correlation of -.30 with every trait in each of the other two nuclear groups. Employing these criteria rigidly, we found that…22 of the original 50 traits had qualified.
This resembles hard science as numerology resembles mathematics. It has about it a distinct pre-scientific whiff of bacon — Francis Bacon, who believed that one could formulate useful scientific hypotheses by gazing steadily at an object and making lists of what one notices. The blithe way Sheldon throws out the 28 of his 50 traits that don’t meet the correlation tests adds a more modern, Johnnie-Cochran flavor: if the trait don’t fit, get rid of it. Since there are no hard-and-fast rules for classifying types, either physically or by temperament, the scheme groans under confirmation bias.
Still, this is not physics but social science, where there may be something to be said for simply looking around. Dubious methods may also serve a defensible thesis. One suspects that Sheldon has been “discredited” less for his technique than his belief that physique influences temperament, which, knotty cause-effect questions aside, is obvious to any sentient inhabitant of the planet.
Sheldon was a prescient critic of therapy, which he considered useless for most people and counterproductive for some. He was no fan of endocrine, the Prozac of the 1940s: “A long history of experimentation with endocrine therapy seems to have intensified [the subject’s] unhappiness without improving the situation.” He didn’t go in much for talking therapy either: “He has been having a long series of conferences with a psychiatrist whose point of view places great weight on the early intrafamilial relationships. This has turned the youth’s attention more than ever toward his parents and familial entanglements… He has learned to blame his mother and father for every disappointment.” Thus Sheldon casually hands Freud his head without even mentioning his name. Of his 200 cases in Varieties of Temperament Sheldon recommends psychoanalysis for about five. Anyone who has observed its whiny modern products will share his skepticism.
The customary accusations of “eugenicist” and “biological determinist” have been hurled at Sheldon, with the customary accuracy. Sheldon nowhere advocated selective human breeding, and although he sometimes lets his system carry him away (“2-2-6’s do not write novels, they only dream of it”), the general thrust of his work is away from determinism. (It is the extreme environmentalists, on the contrary, who tend toward it.) Sheldon takes pains to point up cases of identical somatotype where one succeeds and one fails. At one point he remarks of two cases, an extreme cerebrotonic and an extreme somatotonic, “it is useless to expect Christopher to become a heavyweight boxing champion, or Boris to learn cuneiform,” which may sound like biological determinism to some but sounds like common sense to me.
Sheldon preaches, insofar as he preaches, that human nature is not indefinitely plastic. “Know thyself” is how the Greeks put it. Today that makes him a quack; the modern psychiatric wisdom is “be what you want to be.” How will that look in fifty years?
(Update: Howard Owens comments.)