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Mobile Register
January 26, 1995

The raw truth about science

physiognomy — the practice of trying to judge character and mental qualities by observation of bodily features

Ever since Socrates uttered his famous dictum “Know thyself,” mankind has struggled to become better acquainted with Homo sapiens.

The cause received a boost in the late 19th century, when scientists lit off their torches and entered the caves of physiognomy. There they cooked up what was regarded as a remarkable discovery: You could look at the shape of a guy’s body and tell whether he was a crook.

The endomorphs were the born troublemakers. If you had a kid developing in the mode of a fire hydrant with eyes tucked under a bony ledge, forget about it. His felonious destiny was written all over him. Ectomorphs, on the other hand, carried their slender frames with a noble bearing that fairly shouted of prosperity and beneficence.

But a few scientists who kept their eyes peeled saw no shortage of lanky killers and portly saints. Countered by such evidence, physiognomy had pretty much died on the vine by the end of the Roaring Twenties.

Or so it was thought until the late 1970s, when some employees at Yale unlocked a room and found thousands of photographs of young Yalies without so much as a cobweb covering their boola-boolas. This naturally attracted journalists, who soon discovered that similar photos had been snapped at such venerable Down East bastions as Smith, Vassar, Princeton, Wellesley and Mount Holyoke — thousands of blue-bloods at attention, shot bow-on and abeam, as naked as boiled eggs.

What truly amazes is that this picture-taking continued through the 1960s and included the likes of George [H.W.] Bush, Diane Sawyer and Hillary Rodham (separately, of course). Even Judith Martin, a.k.a. Miss Manners, peeled and posed.

Heaven knows it wasn’t cheesecake. George Bush? Please. It was physiognomy’s last gasp. The photos were first taken to study posture and later to establish correlations between body shape and intelligence. Presumably a glockenspiel chest denotes musical ability, while those with a shell-backed stance are natural scholars — but then a question-mark profile is equally suited to a vaudeville ticket-vendor. So much for physiognomy.

The problem now is what to do with all those pictures. The Smithsonian has, for now, locked them away. Should they be put on display? We vote no: Consign them to the flames. Many of those in the photos are still alive. Their privacy should be protected.

Legal counsel for the Smithsonian says the photos might be of historical value: “Any kind of historical movement, the history of science itself, is educational.” Frankly, we think we can pass the quiz on physiognomy without the photos. George Bush may have posed in the raw, but we’re not from Missouri and you don’t have to show us.

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