Sheldon: the Dark Side

When we first wrote about the work of William Sheldon in A Tool for Understanding Human Differences, which appeared in 1985, it was already apparent that Sheldon had been a difficult man. Some of the people who had worked with him left the impression that they were still bothered many years later by how he had behaved, and Sheldon, himself, acted in ways that were detrimental to the advancement of his work. Since then other negative reports about him have surfaced so it is worthwhile reviewing them and asking ourselves how they effect our evaluation of his work.

1. The New York Times in an article by Ron Rosenbaum, “The Great Ivy League Nude Posture Photo Scandal: How scientists coaxed America's best and brightest out of their clothes,” painted a picture of Sheldon as a quack bamboozling college and university authorities so that they would parade their students naked beforehand, and all this without proper informed consent. I have looked at this issue in my article, “Sheldon as Pseudo-Scientist, or the New York Times as Tabloid?." Most of the motivation behind the article seems to be a desire to make fun of the elite universities as dupes of Sheldon the mad scientist. This doesn’t hold together very well, and in fact, for the proposed but never published Atlas of Women it was Barbara Honeyman Heath (Lindsay Carter, J.E. and Barbara Honeyman Heath. 1990. Somatotyping – development and applications. Cambridge, NY: Cambridge University Press, p. 11) with a team of three young women who seems to have done the somatotype photographs of the college women.

2. In the mid-1930s Sheldon was engaged, or thought he was, to a woman he called Starlight. She broke up with him and married someone else, and this caused him to write a threatening letter to the man she married, who duplicated it and sent it to various universities, thus damaging Sheldon’s career possibilities. (Lindsay Carter, J.E. and Barbara Honeyman Heath. 1990. Somatotyping – development and applications, p. 6)

3. Sheldon in The Varieties of Delinquent Youth ranted about the endomorphic-mesomorphic mothers of the delinquents, and how America had become mongrelized from its original New England Anglo-Saxon origins. But just how much of a racist was Sheldon? Here we can look at the account by John Sample, in "A Closer Look at William H. Sheldon." It certainly looks like Sheldon had become prey to all sorts of fearful and hostile fantasies.

4. Barbara Honeyman Heath, who had closely collaborated with Sheldon for years, especially in regard to the Atlas of Men and the proposed but never published Atlas of Women, tells us that Sheldon in the Atlas of Men fudged his data to make some of his height-weight curves smoother, and trimmed some of his pictures in order to have examples of some extreme somatotypes he had not found in real life. Her testimony is all the more convincing because she tells us that the results of independent somatotyping by her and Sheldon were very close. She, in fact, had no problem with the value of what Sheldon was doing, and was to go on and build upon and modify Sheldon’s work.

5. Sheldon was a major collector and an expert on early American large cents. In fact, he created a classification for them that is still in use. In the late ‘40s he was writing a book Early American Cents which appeared in 1949. With those credentials he had access to study the collection that the American Numastic Society had received from George Clapp of Alcoa Aluminum whose own collection was one of the few that exceeded Sheldon’s. Many years later, after Sheldon was dead, the Society accused him on the basis of photographic records of having switched coins between his collection and Clapp’s so that he would have the higher quality specimens. While accessible public information about this matter is difficult to come by, the Society did win a California court case, at least in its earlier stages, against a collector who had purchased coins from Sheldon’s collection which the Society rightly claimed belonged to them.

It is interesting to note that, aside from the Starlight incident, many of these events cluster around the late ‘40s and early ‘50s. This raises the possibility that the post-War Sheldon may have been more volatile than the pre-War one. It was during World War II that he was eventually diagnosed with Hodgkin’s disease, and left the service with a full disability pension. But let’s try to probe Sheldon’s rather shocking behavior a bit more deeply. What he did in regard to the large cents is probably the most revealing. They played an important role in his psyche as symbols of his boyhood, and mostly likely as promises of psychological wholeness. He even went so far as to say in his book on the early American cents that he could find no reason not to write it since he had spent so much time on less satisfying ventures. Those ventures were, in fact, his psychological work, making this a remarkable statement. Given the prominent role, then, that the coins played in his psyche, we can imagine him feeling that in some way the best American cents of the Clapp collection really ought to belong to him, and then rationalizing in a rather cold-blooded way that the caretakers of the collection would simply not notice the switches. The same kind of attitude could have played a role in his feelings about people who departed from the perfection of the world he remembered from his own New England Anglo-Saxon childhood, and the data that he apparently fudged would be, to his mind, simply accommodating the data to the truth he felt he possessed.

None of this excuses his external behavior, but does this behavior invalidate his psychological work? The real strength of that work was his keen sense of observation, and an ability to turn those observations into classificatory systems. Just as his grading of the early American cents is still of value, so are his basic insights about somatotype and temperament. They are open to inspection and verification, and have been confirmed in various ways by others. It is a shame, however, that his own psychological work didn’t help him more, and that his own behavior forms an obstacle to its true appreciation.

Summary of Sheldon 

There is no getting away from the two aspects of Sheldon’s personality. On the one side he was gifted with wonderful psychological insights, and on the other, negative outbursts out of the unconscious that were hardly under his control. James Tanner, who was a highly creative biological typologist, caught a sense of the two sides of his personality. In a review of J. E. Lindsey Carter and Barbara Honeyman Keith’s book on somatotyping, he expressed it like this: “... Sheldon was a real prophet, no doubt about that; and like so many such, he was an awkward cuss, too, and made enemies with the ease of a true paranoid. But his work remains important in its implications and its insights, and it is shockingly neglected by psychologists, sociologists, and anthropologists alike.”

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