As an American soldier in World War II Irving W. Knight '48 had bigger worries than modesty about his naked body.
So when he returned from the war and enrolled in Harvard College in 1946, Knight wasn't embarrassed when Harvard officials asked him to pose for nude photos.
"Posture photos," as they were then called, were taken of every incoming student at many prestigious colleges in the first half of the 20th century, as a part of the registration process.
George L. Hersey '51, now a professor of art history at Yale, says, "I was told to show up at the swimming pool, I took my swim test and posed. We were expected to show up and do this."
Students acquiesced in the days of single-sex colleges because nudity was a normal part of the college experience, Knight says.
"We never wore bathing suits in the swimming pools, it was considered more hygienic that way," he says. "The House [swimming] races were in the nude."
And so posture photos were snapped and collected--and saved for later research which was intended to link physique to temperament.
This practice--led nationwide by a Harvard researcher--remained widespread through the 1950s and 60s.
Posture photos were so common, in fact, that nude images of luminaries like Yale alum George Bush and Wellesley alums Hillary Rodham Clinton and Diane Sawyer may still exist in dusty archives somewhere, a revelation that made the cover of the Sunday New York Times Magazine more than 30 years later.
Origins of the Posture Photo
From 1880 to 1940, Harvard's Physical Education Department took nude posture photos of all entering students, says retired anthropology professor William W. Howells '30.
Professor E.A. Hooton of the Anthropology Department and William H. Sheldon, another Harvard researcher, took over the posture photo program in 1940, transforming it into a somatotyping campaign, Hersey says.
Students photographed were assigned a somatotype to describe their body shape. Thin individuals were classified as "Ectomorphs," the obese were labeled "Endomorphs," and those with muscular builds were "Mesomorphs."
"Sheldon undertook a huge program, backed by Ivy League Universities, in order to photograph the elite and show that their physiques and temperaments were those of leaders and superior people," says Hersey, who is researching a book on this subject.
The somatotyping campaign expanded beyond the Ivy League--to include some 46,000 individuals photographed at military and medical institutions.
Approximately 18,000 nude photographs of Harvard undergraduates were stored in Widener Library at least through the summer of 1963.
Frederica E. Sigel says that she and three other teenage women were hired by the School of Public Health to sort the photos.
The duties of the job included linking body measurements to cause of death, Sigel says.
"We had everybody's every measurement and we sorted them by various categories, including cause of death, to be put on punch cards," Sigil says.
"The duties of the job weren't as remarkable as what we were looking at," she says. "We had all these photos of the Herters, the Salton-stalls, and I think there were some Roosevelts."
Sigel says that although the novelty of the job wore off after the first week, a "unique measurement" would appear every now and then.
"We would pass the photo around," Sigel said. "We were of an age where we didn't have access to 18,000 naked men, this was an exciting job for and adolescent to have," she says. "It put a whole different spin on dating."
On her last day on the job, Sigel says her employers took her to the School of Public Health to see the computer that tabulated the data from the cards she sorted. Sigel describes a machine similar to the Harvard Somatotyper which Sheldon used to transform bodily measurements into somatotypes.
Today, most identifiable photos are reported to have been destroyed.
Sheldon, the main academic advocate of somatotyping, grew up in rural Rhode Island. His father, a naturalist, judged county animal fairs and taught Sheldon how to classify living things, says Ellery Lanier, a former protege.
The task of classifying animals eventually led Sheldon to develop a system of evaluating human body types.
Evidence of Sheldon's naturalist upbringing is said to be evident in his work--Atlas of Men, a coffee-table tome featuring hundreds of nude photos of the various somatotypes. The volume also contains epigraphs linking the different body types with animals.
The chapter describing extreme ectomorphy bears the title "Stingless Mosquitoes." Sheldon describes the lankiest men as "little male mosquitoes, frail waifs of the night air."
Those who knew Sheldon describe him as a colorful character who once raced cars up Pikes Peak, farmed sheep in Montana and fathered two children in an unsuccessful marriage.
John S. Sample, who met Sheldon while studying at Antioch, says he was an eccentric exemplar of the New England Harvard patrician demeanor.
"Sheldon was constantly wearing his doctor's smock as if he were coming out of the laboratory and called everyone 'Doctor' for reasons unknown," Sample says.
Sheldon had a cold, dark side, says Robert R. Holt, a former psychology professor at new York University, who met Sheldon in the 1940s.
"I never felt any warmth in [Sheldon]," Holt says. "In retrospect there was a psychopathic aspect to his personality," he adds. "He was very adept at manipulating people and exploiting situations for his own benefit."
Holt says that Sheldon's lack of empathy led him to deceive the thousands of subjects he photographed. "I don't think he cared about their feelings," Holt says.
Ivy League Gene Pool
Many who knew Sheldon describe him as a racist and a Nazi-sympathizer who espoused "eugenic" philosophies.
"Sheldon was critical of the possibility of attainment of Blacks, Hispanics and Jews," Sample says. "He put limits on what he regarded as their potential," he says. "He thought they had a limited IQ ceiling."
Sample says Sheldon was a "holocaust revisionist" who stopped reading the New York Times because it was "run by Jews who were part of a conspiracy to take over the world."
"Sheldon defended Hitler as having a good many virtues," Sample says.
Sheldon is said to have believed that Ivy League students should mate only with one another to produce a "super race" of children.
"Sheldon would've been happy to breed a super race, possibly made up of Northern Europeans, somewhat along the lines of what Hitler espoused," Sample says.
"If Sheldon had his way, he would've taken all the cream out of the Ivy League," Sample adds. "He would've liked to see a race built upon the Harvard types."
"Sheldon said women at Ivy League colleges should have lots of children since they were such skilled people they could use their skills to improve their children and the general human race," says Lanier, the former close associate of Sheldon's
Students who were photographed at Harvard say University officials deceived them about the true purpose of the photos, telling students they would be used to evaluate posture for anatomical research.
"We were told they were taking a posture photo," Knight says. "We were told Professor Hooton was designing a new railroad seat," he adds.
Harvard officials knew the true plans for the photographs, Hersey says.
"The people who knew Sheldon all knew that the photographs were being used for his purposes," Hersey says.
"These scientists were not a minority, they were the mainstream of American social science," Hersey adds. "They thought that the immigration policies should be adjusted to preclude people from entering the country who were considered to be biologically inferior."
As Sheldon's former "field man," Roland D. Elderkin says he investigated the histories of the subjects photographed.
"I was Sheldon's research agent and I did a great deal of work in reading hospital and court records and looking up the medical and social backgrounds of the people we were working with."
When asked if Sheldon had gained permission to access his subjects' personal records, Elderkin declined to comment, saying "that is of no concern to anybody."
Sheldon came to Harvard in 1938 as a visiting lecturer, and stayed until 1942, Elderkin says.
"Hooton was interested in physical build and persuaded Sheldon that it would be a wonderful thing to come to Harvard," Elderkin says. "Hooton felt he needed a strong academic boost and that it would [also] be to the advantage of Harvard for Sheldon to come."
Elderkin says that Sheldon's opinions and theories about morphology were basically formed at Harvard.
"He developed a structure for describing human physique and temperament," Elderkin says. "They were strengthened by the influence of others [at Harvard]."
The somatotyping photography program was conducted by Sheldon across the country under the aegis of Hooton at Harvard, Hersey says. "Harvard was the first college to put in this program, the photography-somatotyping program," Hersey says.
"The person who was in charge of the campaign was Sheldon but the mastermind was clearly Hooton," Hersey says.
The Harvard somatotyping program was part of a "two-pronged" effort, Hersey says.
"[One prong] was to photograph the elite and the other was to do the dregs of society from the jails," he says. "Hooton thought Anglo-Saxons were on the top of the tree and everyone else was arranged in a pecking order down below."
The somatotyping program at Harvard was a quest to "save society," by "bettering inheritance," Hooton wrote in one of his books.
"The ultimate objective is to learn enough about human heredity to enable us to control and limit the production of inferior and useless organisms."
Eugenic Admissions Policies?
Sheldon's eugenic research may have influenced the Harvard admissions policy, Hersey says.
"There was a professor of student hygiene that had nothing to do with the infirmary--[he] had to do with seeing that students had the right genetic backgrounds," Hersey says.
"[Dr. Arlie V. Bock] certainly tried to engineer future acceptance policies, using the Sheldon photographs and interviews," Hersey adds.
Hersey could not recall Bock's name, but a search of Hooton's work revealed that Bock held the position Hersey described.
A Big Joke?
Lanier dismisses the controversy surrounding Sheldon and his somatotyping program and says critics are simply overreacting to the researcher's warped sense of humor.
"Sheldon had one irritating quality--a sarcastic sense of humor, which he thought was funny, but it would intimidate the stuffed shirts of the academic world," Lanier says.
"He just thought he was being funny, he didn't stop to realize that people would take everything he said seriously," Lanier adds. "Sheldon might have made jokes about breeding super-human beings, but he didn't believe it. He was never a racist."
If Lanier is correct, Harvard and other Ivy League colleges may have been the victims of one of the biggest jokes in the history of the American academy.
College administrators around the country may have realized this when they began to distance themselves from Sheldon and his work in the 1960's.
Sample says scientists realized that Sheldon's work had little scientific value. "Many thought his observations were overly subjective because he [alone] did most of the observation and ratings of his photographs," Sample says.
Holt agrees, postulating that Sheldon could not separate his personal biases from his scientific work.
"Sheldon didn't have any way of blinding himself to the physique while he assessed the temperament," Holt says. "The correlations he published were not worth very much," he says. "Sheldon deceived himself."
Sheldon's relatively sudden plummet from national celebrity into obscurity bruised his ego, Holt says.
"For a while, Sheldon was riding high and had access to a great deal of data," Holt says. "People began getting nervous about that and began closing doors and that must've been difficult for him."
As Sheldon's popularity declined, his paranoia and racist sentiment grew, Sample says.
"Sheldon grew increasingly defensive and paranoid as his ideas lost favor," Sample says. "As people attacked his teachings, he grew increasingly isolated and ended up that way at the end of his life--reading detective stories."
Once a famous researcher, Sheldon passed his final years reading mysteries in a rented room before dying in 1977, Sample says.
Parallels to The Bell Curve
Hersey says a clear parallel exists between Sheldon's research and that of another controversial former Harvard professor--The Bell Curve, co-authored by the late Richard J. Herrnstein.
"Sheldon is the predecessor to The Bell Curve," Hersey says. "[Both are examples of] biological determinism: your genetic heritage that determines the parameters of your intelligence and other things like criminality."
Sample also says he sees the commonality between works, calling Sheldon the "Herrnstein of the 1940's...Sheldon might think that since you're Black or Mexican you are limited in attainment and won't be a brilliant achiever."
Lanier defends Sheldon, saying his research is no worse than current genetic technology.
"Today the people who might be against Sheldon, claiming he believed in eugenics, have no hesitation in saying marrying couples should get genetic counselling." Lanier says. "Eugenics is in full flower today but nobody wants to admit it."