Lost Treasures:
Unpublished Sheldon Letters Found

William Sheldon was a talented, yet troubled man. He was not a pseudo-scientist (see Sheldon as Pseudo-Scientist, or the New York Times as Tabloid?) because he put the age-old insights of the relationship between body type and temperament on more secure foundations. But he had trouble relating to people, and seems to have wandered off at times into a bitter fog of prejudices which may have gotten worse as he grew older. See John Sample's piece A Closer Look at William H. Sheldon. But Sheldon had a warmer side that came out in regard to his family. (See below.)


Through the kindness of Bill and Sara Sheldon we get a valuable glimpse of William Sheldon through three letters that he wrote to his brother, Israel, Bill’s father.

The letters are dated February 18th, May 22nd and November 2nd, 1948, and were written from Columbia University College of Physicians and Surgeons in New York City where Sheldon had his Constitutional Clinic.

The letter of February 18th is the most important, for it sheds light on Sheldon’s illness during World War II and how it effected his post-war work:

"I have been doing fulltime work for two years now. Probably am only about as sick as I have been all my life. I never was really much good, you know. Low blood pressure, poor strength reserve, easy fatiguability, Sheldon laziness. But at a somewhat low energy level I think I am pretty healthy. There is a tendency toward extreme prostration when deprived of sleep, and probably toward the rare cancer or malignancy which the army diagnosed in 1943. But I think this last can be controlled for a long time. The thick-headed army medics read in text-books that the condition is uniformly fatal in six months, but I now teach at the best medical center in the world that the picture is a little more complex than that; that a constitutional factor is present which may make all the difference in the world.

"It is possible, I think, that I will be with you, like Cousin Nelly, long after all the honest people have gone to bed. It is a strange and stubborn-willed breed, mainly from the Scotch lowlands I suspect."


His letter of May 22nd touches on his work and the books he is trying to finish, perhaps The Varieties of Delinquent Youth, and The Atlas of Men:

"New York, the center of the abscess, is about as ever and so am I, apparently. I really look forward to your reading the two books that I am now trying to finish, although it is surely a question whether the books I write are worth the effort. I have no clear idea why I do it. An obsession, I suppose.

"The Roosevelt smell lingers here still and inflation goes merrily on. It will wipe out our sort of people entirely and rapidly. Some of our breed will probably intermingle with tougher stock though and in that way the spark may get through. I should think that one Sheldon "intellectual" will have been enough."


And in the letter of November 2nd he writes:

"Actually it might be a fine idea to run off a project at Austin this winter and I think it would help the Atlas on which I am working. What we need principally now though is somatotype photographs of a few thousand more females and I doubt if Texas can quite be led up to that."

The Atlas of Men was published in 1954, and the planned Atlas of Women bogged down over the obtaining and publishing the photos of women. Much later the issue was to lead to a poorly reported article in the New York Times Magazine, making Sheldon appear as some sort of pseudo-scientist hoodwinking the college authorities of America to obtain more somatotype photos.

For more about William Sheldon, see Chapter 7 in our Tracking the Elusive Human, Vol. 2.

How many more Sheldon letters are there out there, and how many people are still around who knew Sheldon and have stories to tell about him? Let us know. arraj@innerexplorations.com

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