What Kind of a Morph Are You? Biotypology in Transit, 1920s-1960s

By Alexandra Minna Stern

What kind of morph are you: an ectomorph, mesomorph or endomorph? Today these terms have niche popularity in fitness and bodybuilding circles, providing people with information to tailor their workout regimes and monitor protein and carbohydrate intake. Yet in the mid-twentieth century, these categories were commonplace. Magazines such as Life presented their readers with caricatures of three types of morphs, encouraging them to classify their own body type and temperament based on criteria that gave equal weight to heredity and environment.

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The question “What Manner of Morph are You?” was posed to Americans in the mid-20th century (William Sheldon Papers, Smithsonian Institution)

These categories which mapped human variation across a spectrum clustering around recognizable types, entered the scientific and lay lexicon in the 1920s and 1930s as part of the emerging language of biotypology and constitutional medicine, which sought to capture the whole person and patient as a physiological and social being.[1] Starting in these decades scientists across the globe interested in measuring human beings but skeptical of reductionist approaches that relied on singular categories or rigid racial taxonomies turned to the emergent field of biotypology. As William H. Sheldon, one of the most prominent biotypologists in the United States explained, these new techniques emphasized total constitution: “the basic, underlying pattern of the living individual, as it is at the time when the individual is studied,” and reminded his readers “that constitution is closely determined by heredity is highly probable.”17 Instead of relying on discrete racial categories that were associated with doctrines of white superiority and evolutionary hierarchies, biotypologists sought to group human types according to a multiplicity of human capacities.

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Rigid racial typologies, from Roland B. Dixon, Racial History of Man (1923)

Biotypology overlapped significantly an emerging modified version of eugenics that adhered to the primacy of heredity while allowing latitude for environmental factors. This modified eugenics shifted away from racial categories and resonated with the rise of population thinking in human genetics. Biotypology gained significant traction in places associated with what Nancy Ley Stepan calls “Latin eugenics,” where scientific elites in countries with mixed-race populations tended to reject the tenets of white superiority and express an affinity with neo-Lamarckian, as opposed to Mendelian, theories of human inheritance.[2] Biotypology had broad and magnetic appeal in nations such as Italy, Spain, Portugal, Argentina, Brazil and Mexico, where scientists sought to pursue the dream of biological betterment through the application of ostensibly more neutral methods of human measurement.

Biotypology’s intellectual cradle was fascist Italy where scientists such as Giacinto Viola, Mario Barbàra, Nicola Pende, Sante Naccarati, and Corrado Gini developed classificatory models that sought to identify national biotypes according to a calibrated constellation of anthropometric, biometric, physiological and physiological traits. These data, in turn, would be employed to ‘strengthen the nation’, by encouraging reproductive growth of ideal biotypes, principally through pronatalist and public health campaigns.[3] The German psychiatrist Ernst Kretschmer and the American Charles Stockard, a Cornell University endocrinologist whose system of classification privileged thyroid metabolism and head shape, also devised biotypological schemes that were offered as part of the rise of constitutional medicine.

Most biotypologists explicitly rejected scientific racism. For example, Sheldon explained that his version of biotypology – somatoyptes – transcended identifications such as “race, coloring, head dimensions, physiology, blood type” and provided “a universal frame of reference” and a “general human taxonomy.”[4] Mexico’s leading biotypoogist, José Gómez Robleda lambasted scientific studies of race that presumed white and European racial superiority; they were “antiscientific insofar as it is not possible to establish distinct grades or hierarchical qualities between human groups.” According to Robleda, biotypology was a universal criterion that transcended “the conventional limitations of race.”[5] Nevertheless, biotypologists still worked with categories saturated with assumptions about individuals and groups based on culture, language, socio-economic status and geographic location, and hereditary ideas about the innate limitations of certain groups were not far below the surface.

In the 1930s, Latin American biotypologists embarked on major projects to measure and classify urbanites, rural dwellers and indigenous groups, among others, incorporating schemes developed by their Italian colleagues.[6] In this hunt for universal types, biotypologists employed myriad devices, such as spirometers, stethoscopes, Rorschach inkblots, blood sampling kits, ergographs, dream analysis, personality typing and temperament tests. They often began their investigations by gauging physiological and anthropometric indicators such as chest-limb ratio, thyroid metabolism, head shape, pulse, and ergonomic response. Through the utilization of laboratory and medical instruments and statistical methods, biotypologists sought to map human differentiation on distributional continuums. Many biotypological categories circulated in the mid-century, however, some of the most common were long types/short types/normal types, ectomorph/endomorph/mesomorph, introvert/extrovert and hyperkinetic/hypokinetic.

Argentina was on of the countries most taken with biotypology. This was showcased in the name of that country’s premier eugenics organization and its scholarly journal, Annals of BiotypologyEugenics, and Social Medicine: at the Italian Hospital in Buenos Aires in the 1930s, a cadre of physicians connected to the Italian Argentine Institute solidified not only the activities of the Argentina Association for Biotypology, Eugenics, and Social Medicine but also a Polytechnic School and allied academic facilities. Argentine eugenicists incorporated the typologies of Pende and Gini, with their visible fascist overtones, into their mission to identify ideal biotypes.[7] For example, Argentine eugenicists strove to use biotypology towards the goal of the “formation of the ideal type that has to perpetuate the species throughout the centuries. When we achieve the formation of superior types, giving aims to nations, orientation to people, and ideals to races, only then will we have accomplished our duties.[8]

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Pende’s tome Tratado de Biotipologia Humana, published in Buenos Aires in 1947.

Biotypology never acquired such institutional standing in Brazil, but nonetheless was employed enthusiastically by an array of social scientists and physicians who relied on the frameworks of Pende, as well as Viola and Barbàra. Biotypology was central to the anthropological search to identify the quintessential Brazilian “normotype” or normal man, the icon of racial democracy and the subject of dozens of specialized books and manuals. In addition, it secured a solid foothold in Rio de Janeiro’s School of Medicine, and influenced Brazilian clinical medicine, particularly cardiology, as physicians sought to correlate specific biotypes with particular diseases.[9]

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Biotypes in Brazil. From Waldemar Berandinelli, Tratado de Biotypologia e Patologia Constitucional, 1942.

Mexican biotypologists followed a similar vein, enamored of Viola’s biotypes, whose tripartite model of long, short, and normal types guided large-scale projects to measure and classify urbanites, rural dwellers and indigenous groups.[10] In the 1930s, the Italian statistician Gini spent much time in Mexico training scientists, who then fanned out to realize studies in Oaxaca, Guerrero, Jalisco and Michoacán.[11] Although they proclaimed that their tools were free from racism, when biotypologists employed these techniques to differentiate between indigenous groups, inevitably some groups were deemed more easy to assimilate and civilize than others, most notably the Otomíes, who were categorized as deficient short types alongside other indigenous groups in southern Mexico such as the Maya and Yucatecos.[12] These findings, in turn were incorporated into plans for demographic growth and change, demonstrating that biotypology produced its own set of hierarchies inflected by race and class.[13]

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Mental Attention and Memory test used by Robleda in his studies of Mexico’s indigenous populations. Source: José Gómez Robleda, Estudio Biotipológico de los Otomíes (Mexico: Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México, 1961), p. 40.

In the United States, one of the most active biotypologists was William H. Sheldon, a psychologist who received his Ph.D. and M.D. at the University of Chicago and held positions at Harvard University and later at the University of Oregon Medical School. Sheldon was a strong hereditarian, who claimed that “constitution is closely determined by heredity is highly probable.”[14] Under the umbrella of constitutional medicine, he formulated a theory of human somatotypes that he punctiliously itemized in his Human Constitution series. One of Sheldon’s initial projects was to design and calibrate an introversion-extroversion Scale of Temperament (first developed by the psychologist Lewis Terman) with a group of 33 male graduate students and young academics from Harvard.[15] His psychometric tools and study participants expanded in his subsequent projects: The Varieties of Temperament: A Psychology of Constitutional Differences (1942), Varieties of Delinquent Youth (1949), the culminating tome, Atlas of Men (1954).

Atlas of Men encapsulates Sheldon’s search for a “biological identification tag” among a subset of 46,000 college men (who constituted most of his research subjects) from institutions across the country. He explained why his method of somatotyping was valid according to the tenets of modern science:

“genetic theory now attempts to reach across to the continuum of biological observation by means of increasingly elastic concepts like the total gene complex, pleiotropism, polymorphism, blending inheritance, incomplete and partial dominance, relative penetrance of genes, and so on.”[16]

Unlike the discrete types based on simple Mendelian formulas, such as the recessive-dominant dichotomy, somatotypes captured the breadth of biological human variation and could be plotted on a continuum. Subjects clustered at the mean (graphically located in the middle) consistently embodied the paradigm of Normal, and statistically, came closest to being seen as Superior.

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William Sheldon, Atlas of Men (1954)

According to Sheldon’s calculations, the most “normal” or mid-range somatotype was situated exactly equidistant from the two farthest poles of deviation (and dead center in his two-dimensional distribution diagram), and enumerated as a 4-4-4 or what he called a “balanced 12- level, or Top-of-the Mountain somatotype.”[17] This “Big Hound” (every somatotype was assigned an animal totem, such as “Toothless Whale” “Cottontail Rabbit,” or “Whopping Crane”) measured 4 on a scale from 1 to 7, of endomorphy, mesomorphy, and ectomorphy respectively. If based on Sheldon’s criteria in the Atlas of Men, which combined height-weight ratio with a tri-panel photograph (side, front, and back), a 1-1-7 was an extreme ectomorph (spindly, fragile, tall, with virtually no fat or muscle, vacillating between brilliance and schizophrenia), a 7-1-1 was an extreme endomorph (fat, short, round, slow, and likely to be dull if not feeble-minded), then the 4-4-4 possessed the best of each type. 4-4-4 was, according to Sheldon, “a superb, and perhaps an elevated personality – man’s nearest approach to his persistent vision of Divinity.” [18] [19]

Historian Sarah Tracy has smartly traced Sheldon’s complicated relationship to biotypology. He built up the field but also catalyzed its demise in the 1960s. Critics attacked Sheldon’s techniques as superficial because they tended to rely on only two pieces of data (height-weight and visual assessment based on the somatotype photograph). Other biotypologists incorporated considerably more anthropmetric, psychological and physiological variables into their portfolio in order to assess the whole person’s biological complexity.[20] Eventually Sheldon’s work was “dismissed as quackery” by scientists and the photos from his studies sealed to protect the privacy of well-known Ivy League graduates, such as George W. Bush and Hillary Rodhman Clinton, whose portraits might have been part of this biotypological endeavor.[21]

Biotypolgists sought to relinquish the essentialism of racial categories. However, they traded in this determinism for an intractable sex and gender determinism that undergirded their theories of human differentiation and opinions about the likely program of specific social and cultural groups. If biotypologists were generally obsessed with one condition it was male effeminacy, and to a lesser extent female masculinity (which was deemed more amenable to modification). For example, at the core of Sheldon’s search for Normal was the measurement of gynandromorphy, which he thought synonymous with bisexuality. Gynandromorphy was a conflated catch-all for sexual orientation, gender expression, gender identity and gender non-conformity. He employed the metric of “g” to determine the extent to which his subjects deviated from a normative sex-gender script in which appearances and behaviors corresponded, and deviations form this script usually signalled latent or temporary homosexuality. Sheldon followed in the footsteps of a study undertaken by the Committee for the Study of Sex Variants, a working group established New York City in 1935 that was heavily influenced by constitutional medicine. As Jennifer Terry has argued, the results of this study reinforced theories of sex inversion – namely that effeminate men and manly women were likely to be homosexual.[22] In Mexico, this translated into conclusions of the prolific biotypologist Robleda. On the one hand, the majority of the Tarascans, an indigenous group from western central Mexico, were viewed as feminized asthenic long types that suffered from hypothyroidism, prone to neuroses and were often categorized as bisexual, making them flighty and unreliable. In comparison, the Otomíes from central Mexico, were classified along more masculine lines as hypersexual and primitive short types, characterized by a lack of imagination, myopia and asthma.[23]

Biotypology – its scientists, theories and instruments – traveled across the globe in the first half of the twentieth century. From its Italian epicenter, an interesting dynamic arose where neo-fascist and organicist ideas of human types and their functions in the larger body politic moved through circuits of knowledge and expertise connected mainly to Latin eugenics. In the United States, biotypology shared similar objectives but was nearly synonymous with constitutional medicine. These approaches to human classification now appear like simplistic and amusing relics, yet they expanded modalities for measuring human attributes and popularizing continuums and spectrums as more encompassing and flexible models for mapping human differences, even as they recycled stereotypes about race, gender, sexuality and culture.

Alexandra Minna Stern is a Professor of American Culture at the University of Michigan, and holds appointments in the Departments of History, Women’s Studies, and Obstetrics and Gynecology. She directs the Center for Latin American and Caribbean Studies and co-directs the Reproductive Justice Faculty Program based at the Institute for Research on Women and Gender. 


[1] Sarah W. Tracy, “George Draper and American Constitutional Medicine, 1916-1946: Reinventing the Sick Man,” Bulletin of the History of Medicine 66:1 (1992), 53-89.

[2] Nancy Leys Stepan, The Hour of Eugenics: Race, Gender, and Nation in Latin America (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1991).

[3] See for example Alexandra Minna Stern, “From Mestizophilia to Biotypology: Racialization and Science in Mexico, 1920-1960,” in Nancy Appelbaum, Anne S. Macpherson, and Karin A. Rosemblatt, eds., Race and Nation in Modern Latin America (Raleigh: University of North Carolina, 2003): 187-209; Marius Turda and Aaron Gillette, Latin Eugenics in Comparative Perspective (London: Bloomsbury, 2014); and Eugenia Scarzanella, “Los Intelectuales Italo-Argentinos: ?Un Posible Liderazgo Étnico? La Asociación Argentina de Biotipología, Eugenesia y  Medicina Social (1930-1943,” in Alicia Bernasconi y Carina Frid, eds., De Europa a las Américas: Dirigentes y liderazgos (1880-1960) (Buenos Aires: Editorial Biblos, 2006): 99-112.

[4] William H. Sheldon, Atlas of Men: Guide for Somatotyping the Adult Male at all Ages (New York: Harper & Brothers, 1954), 3.

[5] José Gómez Robleda, Pescadores y Campesinos Tarascos (Mexico: Ediciones de la Secretaria de Educación Publica, 1943), xxvii-xxviii.

[6] Sergio Silva-Casteñeda, “Transatlantic Demographers: The Italian Influence over Population Policy in Mexico and Spain, 1930-1973,” Journal of Policy History 27:2 (2015), 220-249.

[7] Eugenia Scarzanella, “Los Intelectuales Italo-Argentinos: ?Un Posible Liderazgo Étnico? La Asociación Argentina de Biotipología, Eugenesia y  Medicina Social (1930-1943,” in Alicia Bernasconi y Carina Frid, eds., De Europa a las Américas: Dirigentes y liderazgos (1880-1960) (Buenos Aires: Editorial Biblos, 2006): 99-112.

[8] Quoted in Yolando Eraso, “Biotypology, Endocrinology, and Sterilization: The Practice of Eugenics in the Treatment of Argentinian Women during the 1930s,” Bulletin of the History of Medicine 81:4 (2007), 793-822.

[9] Ana Carolina Vimieiro Gomes, “The Emergence of Biotypology in Brazilian Medicine: The Italian Model, Textbooks, and Discipline Building, 1930-1940,” in A. Simões, K. Gavroglu, and M. P. Diogo, eds. History of European Universities, 19th and 20th centuries. Challenges and Transformations (New York: Springer, 2015), 361-380.

[10] Alexandra Minna Stern, “From Mestizophilia to Biotypology: Racialization and Science in Mexico, 1920-1960,” in Nancy Appelbaum, Anne S. Macpherson, and Karin A. Rosemblatt, eds., Race and Nation in Modern Latin America (Raleigh: University of North Carolina, 2003): 187-209.

[11] Silva-Casteñeda, “Transatlantic Demographers.”

[12] José Gómez Robleda, Estudio Biotipológico de los Otomíes (Mexico: Univerisdad Nacional Autónoma de México, 1961).

[13] Deborah Dorotinsky, “Para medir el cuerpo de la nación: antropología física y visualidad racialista en el marco de la recepción de la biotipología en México,” Marisa Miranda and Gustavo Vallejo, eds., Una historia de la Eugenesia: Argentina y las redes biopolíticas internacionales, 1912-1945 (Buenos Aires: Editorial Biblos, 2012), 331-365.

[14] William Sheldon, The Varieties of Human Physique: An Introduction to Constitutional Psychology (New York: Harper & Brothers, 1940), 2.

[15] Sheldon, The Varieties of Temperament: A Psychology of Constitutional Differences (New York: Harper & Brothers, 1942).

[16] William H. Sheldon, Atlas of Men: Guide for Somatotyping the Adult Male at all Ages (New York: Harper & Brothers, 1954), xiii.

[17] Sheldon, Atlas of Men, 222

[18] Ibid.

[19] Ibid.

[20] Sarah W. Tracy, “An Evolving Science of Man: The Transformation and Demise of American Constitutional Medicine, 1920-1950,” in Christopher Lawrence and George Weisz, eds., Greater than the Parts: Holism in Biomedicine, 1920-1950 (New York: Oxford University Press, 1998), 161-88, quote from p. 178; and her “George Draper and American Constitutional Medicine, 1916-1946: Reinventing the Sick Man,” Bulletin of the History of Medicine 66:1 (1992), 53-89.

[21] “Nude Photos are Sealed at Smithsonian,” The New York Times, January 21, 1995. Accessed February 2 at http://www.nytimes.com/1995/01/21/us/nude-photos-are-sealed-at-smithsonian.html

[22] Jennifer Terry, An American Obsession: Science, Medicine, and Homosexuality in Modern Society (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1999).

[23] Stern, “From Mestizophilia to Biotypology.”


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