Were a Group of Ivy League Schools Taking Nude Photos of Their Students for Decades?

Here is the latest in a series of examinations into urban legends about the world of photography and whether they are true or false.

PHOTOGRAPHY URBAN LEGEND: A variety of Ivy Leagues took nude photos of most of their incoming freshmen for decades.

While the topic had been come up here and there over the years, it was not until Ron Rosenbaum’s feature piece in the New York Times Magazine in 1995 that the truth was widely known about the bizarre series of nude photos taken of Ivy League freshmen from 1940 to 1960 (or thereabouts – some schools lasted until the early 1970s).

For years, Freshmen (both male and female) at Smith, Princeton, Yale, Mt. Holyoke, and Vassar had been having photographs taken of incoming freshmen for the sake of checking their posture. They did this at Harvard, as well, from 1880 to 1940 or so.

These photographs would be destroyed after their initial use were finished.

However, starting in the 1940s, an anthropological researcher named William Herbert Sheldon began making arrangements with Smith, Princeton, Yale, Mt. Holyoke, and Vassar where he would be allowed to KEEP the photographs, and that went on until the late 1960s/early 1970s!!

Sheldon was doing research into body types.

He came out with books titled Atlas of Men and Atlas of Women where he examined the various body “types,” primarily endomorphic, mesomorphic, and ectomorphic.

Here is a sampling of these three “somatotypes”:

Those Ivy League schools supplied Sheldon with photographs of their students for his research.

Eventually, these schools destroyed all the photographs that they had access to, and the remaining photographs were held at the Smithsonian Museum. These remaining photographs were destroyed between the publication of Rosenbaum’s article and 2001.

Because the photographs were meant to be anonymous in Sheldon’s work, we don’t know for sure which Freshmen actually WERE used, so usually all we can do is note the various famous people who were at these schools during the right years (as well as note those students, such as Rosenbaum himself, who admit to having their nude photograph taken).

These students include former President George H. W. Bush, former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, television personality Diane Sawyer, playwright Wendy Wasserstein, actress Meryl Streep, screenwriter Nora Ephron, Miss Manners, Bob Woodward – the list is an impressive one.

And it’s a list that is shocking to think that they very well could have had nude photographs circulating for decades.

Thankfully they are basically all destroyed now!

The legend is…


Feel free (heck, I implore you!) to write in with your suggestions for future installments! My e-mail address is bcronin@legendsrevealed.com.

2 Responses to “Were a Group of Ivy League Schools Taking Nude Photos of Their Students for Decades?”

  1. “current Secretary of State Hillary Clinton”

    Are you sure about that?

  2. Ha, true! Thanks, fixed that.

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