Tributes to Sheldon Seevak

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Posted January 08, 2006 in Eugenics
Brooke Donovan, "At Harvard: Campus Affairs; The Naked and the Nude" (1995)

At Harvard: Campus Affairs

The Naked and the Nude

It is hilarious to imagine: the young George Bush, a first-year at Yale, summoned mysteriously to a dingy, windowless room on the fourth floor of Paine-Whitney Gymnasium. After waiting in line outside, Bush enters the room, skinny and awkward; somewhat nervously, he follows orders from two middle-aged men in shirtsleeves. He undresses at their request. One of the men attaches metal spikes to his spine at regular intervals and positions him in profile to a camera on one end of the room. Three flashes later, the young Bush returns to relative obscurity in his life at Yale. Bush was not alone. In his company were Meryl Streep, Diane Sawyer, and Hillary Rodham. From the 1940s to the 1960s at Smith, Princeton, Yale, Mt. Holyoke, and Vassar; from the 1880s to the 1940s at Harvard; and from 1931 to 1961 at Radcliffe, America's future leaders were photographed naked. Quickly forgotten and never questioned, this early photographic experience will become the butt of many jokes in the 1990s. However, the uses to which these so-called "Ivy League posture photos" were put are neither innocuous nor amusing. Safe in the hallowed halls of Ivy League buildings, W.H. Sheldon and E.A. Hooton, the two professors behind the photo frenzy, used the pictures for a very different, almost sinister purpose--to link posture, which they believed was hereditary, with personality. The intent was subtle but unmistakable.
Sheldon, head of Columbia's institute for physique studies, was influenced in large measure by British pseudoscientist Francis Galton. Known as the father of eugenics, Galton wrote several books during the late nineteenth century, including Hereditary Genius and Inquiries Into Human Development. In the latter, he refers to genetic "elements, some ancestral and others the result of degeneration, that are of little or no value, or are positively harmful." He further states his goal of ousting these "elements" by creating a super-human race. This sort of genetic manipulation is both frightening and precocious. When combined with Galton's racism, this sort of philosophy becomes downright dangerous. Sheldon not only adopted Galton's ideas; he also developed an empirical method of determining exactly how personality and genetics are related: measurements from the posture photos.

Traditionally, body measurements have been used to develop somatotypes, or average measurements of the human body, which help designers size anything from the height of a drug-store counter to the width of a bus seat. However, the movement which Sheldon represents employed pseudoscientific methods that have much more potential to harm than this statistical analysis. A Newsweek article from 1950 entitled "Men of Three Kinds" features drawings of three body shapes with suggested professions for each. Based on the somatotyping of C. Wesley Dupertuis, the Navy apparently decided that people with certain shapes were more suitable for certain jobs. Dupertuis's blatant prejudice is evident in his statement, "As for the extreme round-softs, most of these would probably be eliminated or else be given desk or kitchen jobs." He also suggests that "somatotyping should be seriously considered by all military and civilian personnel men to help select individuals temperamentally suited to all sorts of work." By his logic, then, overweight people are best suited for such jobs as cook, store clerk, or office worker, while tall, lanky people should be professors or scientists. Who, then, is smarter and more likely to succeed? According to Dupertuis, the tall and handsome.

At the same time, Sheldon was reaching a similar conclusion using photographs of patients at mental hospitals. With his trusty photographer Carl C. Seltzer in tow, Sheldon ventured to Boston's Hayden Goodwill Inn and other such institutions to compile photos and accompanying psychological profiles for his work Varieties of Delinquent Youth.. Published in 1949, this work is based on "the premise that fruitful study of personality...lies in a program of research implemented to return to the structural organism for its orientation and support." Sheldon used statistical correlations based on a three-part number assignment for each body type to try to establish a connection between certain elements of personality and certain aspects of body shape. Photographs of college students were used in other studies for similar purposes. George Hersey, a Yale professor, is currently working on a book that describes the eugenic motives that might be behind the dual nature of Sheldon's research.

The students in the so-called "posture photographs" probably had no idea that the photos were used for outside purposes. Indeed, many of them probably collected dust in library or athletic archives for years. A few schools, including Yale, destroyed part or all of the photographs when they were rediscovered in the 1970s. Ron Rosenbaum's search for the remaining photos led to his New York Times Magazine article earlier this year. He discovered hundreds of them in the Smithsonian Institution's Anthropological Archives. Currently sealed from public view, the photographs remain in storage, capturing the stiff poses of hundreds of college students who did not realize that they were guinea pigs for a new breed of pseudoscientific experiments.

Many Harvard alumni may wonder what happened to their photos. Some pictures of men went into Sheldon's tome An Atlas of Men, still readable at Hilles, Widener, and Tozzer libraries. Others went into a study at Harvard's Department of Hygiene funded by the merchant W. T. Grant. Summarized by E. A. Hooton in his book Young Man, You Are Normal, the study attempts to develop an "effective combination of scientific and educational techniques whereby the physical and mental capacities of the individual may be accurately appraised at a sufficiently early stage of his development to enable him to use his knowledge to guide him to a life of happiness and successful endeavor." By this logic, genes contain information not only about a person's physique but also about his or her talents and ideal profession. In one portion of the book Hooton argues that "native ability" supersedes "educational environment" as a determinant of intelligence as measured by certain standardized tests. Based on such shaky, pseudoscientific foundations, this study seems to have had some effect on real science. For example, a Science magazine article from 1959 describes a study of the Harvard photos that proves that men with a greater "masculine component," that is, with a more typically male body shape, tended to be smokers. It then goes on to say that "for a specified type of individual, smoking may be a reflection of certain personality and behavioral traits which are characteristic of his biological make-up." Again, these eugenicists linked personality and genetics. The photographs were definitely not just used to assess how well Harvard first-years carried themselves.

The photographs of female students, however, went for this very purpose. The women at Wellesley, Vassar, Smith, Mt. Holyoke, and, yes, Radcliffe were told that they were taken to evaluate their posture. At the beginning of the twentieth century, such posture evaluations were common at women's colleges. Like most scientists, Sheldon developed his somatotypes using only the "posture photos" of men. According to Jane Knowles, Archivist of the Schlesinger Library, "The Radcliffe photos were always used for one purpose only--[to evaluate] posture." She says that, at the request of Radcliffe alumnae, the college checked Physical Education Department and Health Department records to determine that the photos of Radcliffe women have "never been used at all for any outside purpose." The photos formed part of the orthopedic record whose sole purpose, then, was "simply to correct defects of posture." For female students at other colleges, there were even posture-correction classes. These pictures were part of a curriculum that assumed that well-educated women carried themselves correctly, a curriculum that exemplifies the way women have historically been judged based on their appearance and not their merits.

At the time, most students considered the photograph to be a normal part of registration. Now, however, some of the students who were in the photographs are understandably upset by their existence and the uncertainty of their whereabouts. While soliciting donations from alumnae of Radcliffe last semester, I spoke with one woman who refused to give money to the college until Linda Wilson responded to her letter about the Radcliffe posture photos. Knowles said that the existing pictures were all burned in 1956 by an order of the President and Council of Radcliffe College when they were discovered as part of an archival reorganization. She added that "there are a few [photos] of major classes after 1955 and a few exist as samples. They are closed in the Radcliffe College archives." She explained that all the remaining photos, like any other student records, are part of a "case file" and therefore not accessible for 80 years after the time of their creation. This information should reassure worried alumnae that their photos are secure.

Women who attended Vassar may not have such a guarantee. The Vassar photos were the subject of a dialogue between Naomi Wolf and Dick Cavett on the 1992 New York Times editorial pages. Wolf recalls Cavett's speech at her Yale commencement in which he mentioned the Vassar posture pictures: "When I was an undergraduate, there were no women. The women went to Vassar. At Vassar, they had nude photographs taken of the women in gym class to check their posture. One year the photos were stolen and turned up for sale in New Haven's red-light district. The photos found no buyers!" As Wolf argues, women's accomplishments are constantly reduced in importance through jokes such as Cavett's. Even though Sheldon did not use the women's pictures for somatotypes, they have still had long-term effects on women, both direct and indirect.

Despite mild embarrassment and a somewhat amused recollection of their na´vetÚ, most alums probably were not too scarred by posing for these photographs. However, the implications of Sheldon's research are, in the age of The Bell Curve, all too apparent. It is disturbing, to say the least, that these at-best illogical claims that body type determines a person's level of success in life were believed by a large portion of the academic community. Certainly, racists would love to justify their oppression of completely capable human beings on a biological basis. Even today, we should not underestimate the utilization of biological claims to oppress what the majority deems as "other." It is indeed fortunate that these photographs directly affected only a few generations of college students and juvenile delinquents, and not an entire race of Americans.

Brooke Donovan

Category: Eugenics