The Great Ivy League Photo Scandal

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In the late 1970’s, an employee at Yale University unlocked a room in the Payne Whitney Gymnasium and found thousands of photographs of nude students sprawled across the floor. The subjects in the pictures were incoming freshmen that attended Yale between the 1940’s and 1970’s. (Read New York Times report here).

The photos belonged to William Herbert Sheldon, an American psychologist, and the practice didn’t stop at Yale. The practice was widespread among America’s most prestigious universities (including three Ivy League schools — Harvard, Yale and Princeton), and Who’s who of Americana, George Bush, Bob Woodward, Hilary Clinton, Diane Sawyer, Meryl Streep, etc., went through this ignominy.

Although later defended as a part of the studies on the rate and severity of rickets, scoliosis and lordosis, sharp metal pins were attached to each naked student’s spine in the photos suggest that it may have been conducted to support Sheldon’s Mengelian theory on the relation between body types and social hierarchy. While Yale burned and shredded most of the photographs when they discovered them, some of the pictures survived and were later transferred to the Smithsonian. Only in 2001, those final images were destroyed.

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0 thoughts on “The Great Ivy League Photo Scandal

  1. Sheldon’s collections of male physiques, organized by body type, has been published, and is called The Atlas of Men. A copy of it is in the university library in my home city of Edmonton, Canada.

    The faces are concealed in the photos, which are three standing views of each subject-front, side and back. There were two separate studies-male and female. People who have seen the unexpurgated photos, with the faces revealed, have remarked that the men seemed relatively relaxed. Men tend to be far less self-conscious about their bodies than women.

    Most of the women were visibly distressed to be photographed in the nude. Some are grimacing, or seem to be on the verge of tears. Women are much more conscious than men of how their bodies look, which makes sense as, in the eras when the pictures were taken, the principal means for a woman for acquiring social status was through marriage. The difference in life prospects for an attractive and an unattractive woman were stark, and cruel if a woman was unattractive.

    Sheldon was a bit of a scientific crook, and came to conclusions about people’s personalities as a function of their body types that were more fanciful than empirical. On the other hand, he did a pretty good analysis of the relation between health and projected lifespan based on body types. Most long-lived men were found in about six of the body types. Clint Eastwood, for example, now 91 and still making movies, was in one of the long-lived types.

  2. My grandmother enrolled at Oberlin in 1932 and described being photographed in a similar manner. “They told us we would be photographed again after completing the freshman course in calisthenics. The before and after photographs would ascertain any improvement in our posture”

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