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William Herbert Sheldon

university physical chicago psychology

1898-1977
American physician and psychologist who attempted to correlate body type with personality.

William Herbert Sheldon developed "constitutional psychology," the study of the relationships between physical attributes and personality traits. To describe physical build, Sheldon studied thousands of photographs and developed a rating system for three major components or somatotypes—endomorphy, mesomorphy, and ectomorphy—and three secondary components. Likewise, he developed a rating system for three primary components of temperament. He found a correlation between the physical and temperamental ratings. Sheldon was the first to use standardized photography for studying physical traits.

Born in 1898, Sheldon grew up on a farm in Warwick, Rhode Island, as one of three children of William Herbert and Mary Abby (Greene) Sheldon. Educated at local public schools, Sheldon, whose father was a naturalist, worked as an ornithologist while studying at Brown University. After serving in the army as a second lieutenant during World War I, Sheldon received his A.B. degree in 1919. Subsequently, he worked as an oil field scout, a wolf hunter in New Mexico, and a high school teacher before earning his master's degree at the University of Colorado and his Ph.D. in psychology from the University of Chicago in 1925. That year he married Louise Steger, although they later divorced. Sheldon taught psychology at the University of Texas in Austin, at the University of Chicago, and at the University of Wisconsin. In 1933 he earned his M.D. from the University of Chicago. Following an internship, he won a fellowship to study psychiatry with Carl Jung in Zurich, Switzerland.

In 1936, Sheldon became a professor of psychology at the University of Chicago. After two years, he moved to Harvard University to collaborate with Smith S. Stevens, an experimental psychologist. After serving in the Army as a lieutenant colonel during the Second World War, in 1945, he married Milancie Hill. The following year, Sheldon became Director of the Constitution Clinic and Laboratory at the Columbia University College of Physicians and Surgeons, and he began examining the relationships between physical attributes and disease. In 1959, he became a clinical professor of medicine at the University of Oregon Medical School in Portland. From 1951 until 1977, he directed the Oregon follow-up studies in constitutional medicine. Concurrently, he held positions as the director of research for the Biological Humanics Foundation of Cambridge, Massachusetts, as a research associate at the Institute of Human Development at the University of California at Berkeley, and as attending chief of research at Rockland State Hospital in Orangeburg, New York. Sheldon became emeritus professor at the University of Oregon in 1970.

Sheldon authored several books in the "Human Constitution Series," as well as two books of essays in which he tried to merge religion with social psychiatry. He believed that the correlations he observed between physique and personality reflected both the rewards based on behavior for a given physical type, and societal expectations based on physical appearance. Sheldon also examined relationships between physique and delinquent behavior and physique and psychopathology. He used three primary components to define psychopathology. In later years, Sheldon replaced his somatotyping scheme with a method called the Trunk Index.

Sheldon's correlations remain unproven and, in 1995, it was revealed that many of the photographs Sheldon studied were obtained by requiring students at universities to be photographed naked and without informed consent as to how the pictures might be used. Sheldon died of heart disease in Cambridge, Massachusetts, in 1977.

Margaret Alic

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