The Numismatic Bibliomania Society



The E-Sylum: Volume 11, Number 49, December 7, 2008, Article 10


Responding to our earlier discussion of Penny Whimsy author William Sheldon's non-numismatic books, Dick Johnson submitted this revealing submission. No cameras, please. -Editor
I can add to the discussions (by Will Nipper and Pete Smith in recent E-Sylums) on Dr. William Sheldon's analysis of human physiques. It is well known that numismatist Walter Breen knew Dr. Sheldon, both for their mutual interest in early American cents, but also in Sheldon's scientific interest of analysis of human body types.

Sheldon attempted to quantify body physiques somewhat like he quantified large cent conditions, but with a little more sophistication. He stated every human body has three characteristics. He called these ectomorph, mesomorph and endormorph. Unlike the Sheldon cent scale of 1 to 70, his numbers for these characteristics only ranged from 1 to 9.

He called his analysis a somotype; it consisted of three numbers -- the numerical ranking for each of these characteristics, separated by a hyphen. Sheldon trained Breen to do this analysis, subsequently Breen worked for Sheldon doing the somotyping of photographs and Breen became quite adapt at this.

Sheldon had tens of thousands of photographs of both sexes, from teenagers to senior citizens. All nude of course, side view and front view. Published versions obliterated genitals. Sheldon was never considered a voyeur; he was accepted as a psychologist doing scientific work. His most noted work, Atlas of Men, was published by Harper, 1954.

In 1952 Walter Breen came to Washington D.C. to do some extensive research at the National Archives. I was stationed at a nearby Air Force base and offered to assist him since we had been friends for a number of years. I drove him around Washington looking for an inexpensive room within walking distance of the Archives where he could stay for a couple months. (He found one in the basement of a house on Embassy Row next to the Ecuadorian Embassy. It had an elevator to the basement -- one of those open cage types that frightened the hell out of Walter.)

We didn't find that room on the first day however, so I invited Walter to come stay overnight in my Air Force barracks. The next day I introduced Walter to a couple of my buddies and the subject came up of Sheldon's body typing. One buddy asked Walter if he could somotype us. "Sure," he said. "Take off all your clothes."

So we stripped in the hallway. Having naked men in the hallway was not unusual in a men's barracks as the showers were at the end of the hall, and we often ran from showers to our rooms with only clogs on. We posed for Walter, front and side views. He was very professional, a dozen feet away.

Walter assigned a 3-3-3 somotype to me. This is the most perfect somotype possible. I don't know whether he was being nice to me with such a perfect score, or I was, indeed, in top military physique at the time.

The differences in the three characteristics can be expressed best, as I remember, in the extremes -- the ectomorph is more brain than brawn of slender build; the endomorph is the fat man, the mesomorph is the muscular jock. A very skinny man would be a 1 ectomorph, the very obese a 9 in endormorphy, for example. The number scheme was skewed on the high side.

Sheldon carried his analysis to an extreme. He claimed he could tell of other human traits from a person's somotype. Obviously a 9 in endormorphy is going to be sedimentary, a 9 in mesomorphy will always be working out, and such.

In contrast to the numismatic field's embracing Sheldon's grading scale over the years, today the medical field looks on Sheldon's somotyping of body physiques only as a curiosity. (However bodybuilding and forensics still use the technique for body analysis.)

I once sent my copy of Penny Whimsy to Dr. Sheldon, mentioning I was a friend of Walter and requesting he autograph it please. He retuned it unsigned with a curt note stating have Walter sign it. The only author I experienced who refused to sign his own book.

If you want to look at drawings of nude men and women typical of the three somotypes, click on: Somotype (

For an article on Sheldon as a troubled man see: A Closer Look at William H. Sheldon (

Wayne Homren, Editor

NBS ( Web

The Numismatic Bibliomania Society is a non-profit organization promoting numismatic literature. See our web site at

To submit items for publication in The E-Sylum, write to the Editor at this address:

To subscribe go to:



Copyright © 1998 - 2011 The Numismatic Bibliomania Society (NBS)
All Rights Reserved.

NBS Home Page
Contact the NBS webmaster