March 29, 2004

Height and History

Posted by Ed

This week's New Yorker features a fascinating article on anthropometric history--the study of how certain physical characteristics (most prominently, height) have changed with time, and of what this says about the health and wealth of the populations being studied. The article discusses a fascinating fact, that the average height of native-born Americans has quit increasing since the mid-twentieth century, while the average height of Europeans has continued to grow; this disparity may be the result of inferior pre- and post-natal care in the U.S. (along with the unhealthy diet of American teenagers.) The article also looks at other changes in height over time:

The Netherlands, as any European can tell you, has become a land of giants. In a century’s time, the Dutch have gone from being among the smallest people in Europe to the largest in the world. The men now average six feet one—seven inches taller than in van Gogh’s day—and the women five feet eight. The national organization of tall people, Klub Lange Mensen, has considerable lobbying power. From Rotterdam to Eindhoven, ceilings have had to be lifted, furniture redesigned, lintels raised to keep foreheads from smacking them. Many hotels now offer twenty-centimetre bed extensions, and ambulances on occasion must keep their back doors open, to allow for patients’ legs. “We will not go through the ceiling,” the pediatrician Hans van Wieringen assured me, after summarizing national height surveys that he had coördinated. “But it is possible that we will grow another ten centimetres.”

I was first introduced to anthropometric history during my first year at Chicago, when a prominent Russian historian presented a paper on the height of Petrine military recruits at our workshop. Unfortunately, that workshop presentation was on election night in 2000, so most of us had our minds on other subjects and I can't remember the paper very well. (I had arrived in workshop moments before it started with the exciting news that ABC had just called Florida for Al Gore...)

I wish that this article had discussed the scholarship connected to anthropometric history in more detail. It's fascinating stuff, though I get the sense that the science is more complicated than the article gives it credit for, and that it's more difficult to discuss its significance than the author of this piece believes. (What's more, it can be hard to find all the necessary data on height in the past.) Even so, The New Yorker has published an entertaining article on one of the more esoteric branches of social history, with a nice profile of one of that branch's pioneers.

Update: If you're dying to learn more about anthropometric history, the April 2004 issue of the journal Social History of Medicine includes a review of the book Classics in Anthropometric History (edited by John Komlos and Timothy Cuff). (The site I've linked to includes a pdf of the review, which discusses the history of the field.) The Spring 1999 issue of Slavic Review features several articles on anthropometric studies of the Soviet Union; this website includes abstracts of the articles.

Posted by Ed at March 29, 2004 01:06 PM

Interesting write-up, I would like to know the name of the individual, who wrote this and the year. How can I get more information on history of anthropometry and anthropometric data.

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