Physique as destiny: William H. Sheldon, Barbara Honeyman Heath and the struggle for hegemony in the science of somatotyping

Can Bull Med Hist. 2007;24(2):291-316. doi: 10.3138/cbmh.24.2.291.


When Ron Rosenbaum unveiled his explosive journalistic report on the "Great Ivy League Nude Posture Photo Scandal" in 1995 it was a story that revealed the uneven evolution of attitudes toward body, race, and gender in the last half century. His intention was to highlight how easily ideas about the body have been taken up by scientists and sustained in elite institutions of higher education well beyond the bounds of common sense. The villain of his story was William H. Sheldon, a constitutional psychologist who appropriated the ritual of taking posture photos for his scientific study of somatotypes, a system built upon the relationship of body type to character. Sheldon's toxic eugenic views and equation of physique with destiny in the years following World War II made him increasingly unpopular. And while Rosenbaum concluded that Sheldon's downfall was due to the anger of women students over the taking of nude photos, the deathknell of his career was dealt by his former female assistant, Barbara Honeyman Heath. Publicly denouncing his methods as fraudulent and his somatotypes inaccurate she went on to build a successful career modifying somatotyping techniques and participating in projects all over the world.

Publication types

  • Biography
  • Historical Article
  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Anthropology, Physical / history*
  • Atlases as Topic / history
  • Eugenics / history
  • Female
  • History, 19th Century
  • History, 20th Century
  • Humans
  • Interprofessional Relations
  • Male
  • Photography / ethics
  • Photography / history*
  • Somatotypes*
  • United States

Personal name as subject

  • William H Sheldon
  • Barbara Honeyman Heath Heath