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Smithsonian Blocks Access to Elite Schools’ Nude ‘Posture’ Photos

January 20, 1995 GMT

NEW HAVEN, Conn. (AP) _ The Smithsonian Institution has cut off all public access to a collection of nude photos taken of generations of elite college students, some of whom went on to become leaders in U.S. culture and government.

The pictures at first were taken to study posture. Later they were made by a researcher examining the relationship between body shape and intelligence.

All freshmen at at least some of the colleges involved _ Ivy League and other prestigious schools _ were required to pose in the buff.

Among those who would have been subject to the ritual were former President Bush and Hillary Rodham Clinton, but it was not immediately known if their photos are at the Smithsonian, which has never displayed the pictures.

``There are the rights of the subjects to consider,″ Ildiko P. DeAngelis, assistant general counsel at the Smithsonian, said Friday. ``We sealed the entire collection.″

Previously, the photos could be seen by students and researchers only, she said. The pictures will be off limits pending an internal investigation of how the Smithsonian acquired the photos and whether it has rights to them, she said.

The frontal and profile ``posture″ photos were taken beginning in the early 1900s as part of physical education classes, because poise and balance were considered an integral part of health.

Later, the photographs were taken by W.H. Sheldon, who believed there was a relationship between body shape and intelligence and other traits.

Sheldon’s work has since been dismissed by most scientists as quackery. But it apparently was respected from the 1940s through the 1960s, because the colleges allowed Sheldon access to their students. Sheldon is now dead.

Among those subject to the ritual were Mrs. Clinton and ABC’s Diane Sawyer, who attended Wellesley, and Bush and New York Gov. George Pataki at Yale University. Students at Harvard, Princeton, Vassar and Swarthmore also were immortalized.

Much of Sheldon’s work was destroyed by various schools years ago. An article in the New York Times Magazine last Sunday disclosed that the Smithsonian still had a collection.

Yale officials thought they had burned all the photos in the 1970s. ``Had we been aware that there were photos someplace else, we would have done with them what we did with the others _ destroy them,″ spokesman Gary Fryer said.

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After receiving calls from alumni, some distraught and others mildly amused that a reporter had seen the pictures, Yale in New Haven and Mount Holyoke College in South Hadley, Mass., contacted the Smithsonian this week to ask that access be cut off.

It’s too early to say whether the pictures will be destroyed, DeAngelis said. One question is whether the photos have historical merit even though the science behind them is no longer considered valid.

``Any kind of historical movement, the history of science itself is educational,″ DeAngelis said.

George L. Vogt, a member of the Yale Class of 1966 and director of the South Carolina Department of Archives and History, said that Sheldon’s written records of his scientific pursuit, however odd, should be saved, but that the photos should be burned.

``Our naked butts are in the Smithsonian,″ Vogt said. ``I can understand why the Smithsonian would want to record the quack science of the time, but I cannot understand nor can I accept that they would retain naked photographs of living people.″