Popular Science Monthly/Volume 73/September 1908/The Physique of Scholars, Athletes and the Average Student

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By Professor D. A. SARGENT


IN the year 1893 Dr. W. T. Porter, now professor of comparative physiology in the Harvard Medical School, examined some 30,000 children who were attending the public schools of St. Louis, Mo. He found that among pupils of the same age, ranging from 6 to 18 years, the average height and weight of those who were in the higher grades were greater than that of those who were in the lower grades. In other words he found that those pupils who were mentally the most precocious were also physically the most precocious. This announcement called forth considerable criticism at the time, and many teachers, recalling a number of exceptionally bright pupils who were small in stature for their age, doubted the truth of the statement. It is of great scientific interest, therefore, to note that Porter's conclusions have since been confirmed by observations made by Hastings in Omaha, Nebr., by Byer in Cambridge, Christopher in Chicago, Roberts in London, Burgerstein in Vienna and by Leharzig in St. Petersburg. In the face of such a body of concurrent statistics from different parts of this country and Europe, no one can doubt for a moment the natural relationship between a vigorous brain and a vigorous body. Moreover this intimate relationship between body and mind does not appear to be limited to growing youth as shown by the statistics to which I have just referred, but it is true of all classes of individuals when taken collectively. For instance the fellows of the Royal Society of England and the English professional class, who may be said to represent the greatest brain power of the British Empire, average respectively 5 feet 934 inches and 5 feet 914 inches in height and 160 pounds in weight; while lunatics, criminals, idiots and imbeciles who may be said to represent the other end of the intellectual scale, if they are not classed as mentally defective, average in height from 5 feet 7 inches to 5 feet 4.87 inches, and average in weight from 147 pounds to 123 pounds. Here is a difference of 4.88 inches in average height and 37 pounds in average weight between the highest and lowest classes of English society as represented by members of the Royal Society and idiots and imbeciles. Compared with the general population, lunatics according to Roberts show a deficiency of stature of 1.96 inches and of weight 10.3 pounds; and criminals of 2.06 inches and 17.8 pounds, indicating a deficiency of physical as well as mental stamina in both these unfortunate classes of society.

The physical measurements of the English and American people are so nearly identical, as shown by comparisons which I made with Mr. Galton's measurements some years ago, that conditions that affect one class of persons in England may be said to affect in a similar way the same class of persons in this country. We have already seen that growing youth in different parts of this country and Europe develop mentally as they develop physically, and that the men who have attained the highest degree of intellectual eminence as a class, have invariably had a good physique as shown by their superior height and weight, to back up their superior intellectual vigor. In view of these indisputable facts we should expect to find that the same observations would hold true among college students, who may be said to represent the intermediate class on the way from growing youth to men of intellectual eminence and distinction. According to our physiological law we should expect to find that the students as a class who ranked the highest in scholarship would also have the best physiques, as shown by their superior height and weight. In order to ascertain if this inference be true, I have had the following table compiled from my statistics at Harvard University, from which some very interesting and instructive conclusions may be drawn.

PSM V73 D253 Comparative physical measurements of males in the late 9th century.png

Comparative physical measurements of males in the late 9th century

This table consists of the medium measurements of 15 different groups of men, all except Group 10 being composed of students of Harvard University ranging in age from 18 to 26 years. These groups are arranged according to superiority in height and weight. Group No. 1 consists of 240 university crew men, the number whose measurements have been taken since 1880 to 1906. The medium height is seen to be 69.9 inches and the medium weight 152 pounds. Group 2 consists of 295 university football men examined since 1880. The mean height of this group is 69.5 inches, and the mean weight 157.6 pounds. Both the crew and the football groups are composed of picked or selected men, the former being chosen largely for superior height and the latter for superior weight. It will be observed that the strength of both of these groups being 625 and 652, respectively, is lower than some of the groups that follow. The reason for this difference may be explained by stating that prior to 1890 there was no required strength test, and the great majority of the crew and football men in the eighties fell below the present requirement for university athletes, which is 700 points. Group 3 is composed of 505 students who entered the Lawrence Scientific School during the years 1902-6. The height is 68.7 inches, the weight 143.3 pounds, and the strength 680 points. Group 4 is composed of 530 students who entered the academic department during the years 1904-6. The height is 68.7 inches, the same as that of the Scientific School men, but the weight is 140 pounds, or 3.3 pounds less, while the strength is 650, or 30 points less than the Scientific School men. These two groups, comprising some 1,035 undergraduates, are made up of all classes—of athletes, scholarship men, semi-invalids and average students—as they come to the university from the preparatory schools. The Scientific School students are heavier and stronger than the academic students, a fact frequently referred to by the late Professor Shaler, showing his remarkable powers of observation. The most significant facts in regard to these two groups can only be comprehended when they are compared with Group No. 11, comprising 1,000 students taken from the four classes and all departments of the university in 1880. It will be observed that in 1880 the medium height of the university student was only 67.7 inches, although the group contained many men who had been in college three and four years. The medium weight of this group was 135.2 pounds and the total strength 490 points. The average weight and height of the Harvard student at this time was about the same as that given for the American youth, ranging from 21 to 26 years of age, who entered the army in 1860. At the present time the average student is an inch taller, and from 4 to 8 pounds heavier than the average student of 1880, while his strength has increased from 490 to 650 and 680, a gain of 140 and 190 points. In 1880 only 50 per cent, of the Harvard students would have surpassed the height and weight of the army average. To-day over 65 per cent, would pass that standard. This is a most remarkable uplift in growth and development for any considerable body of men in any country or community to have attained in 25 years. My only hesitation in accepting this fact as conclusive is the lingering doubt as to what effect the 30 or 40 per cent, of students who are never weighed or measured at the gymnasium might have upon the medium height and weight. The 1,035 men examined from the Academic Department and Scientific School, as I have stated, comprised all classes, including the short as well as the tall and the weak as well as the strong, and may, therefore, be regarded as fairly representative of the physique of the college.

It may surprise many to learn that the strongest men in college as a class are below the average student in stature. This is perfectly consistent with established facts. Strength is more a matter of shortness and thickness of arms and legs than of great length of limbs, which is likely to be the physical characteristic of speed, as shown by runners and oarsmen, rather than strength and endurance. The superior musculature of the strong man is indicated by his superior weight. In this respect it is observed that he weighs from 7 to 10 pounds more than the average student, while he surpasses this man in strength by some 300 points.

Having ascertained the medium height and weight of what we have termed the average student, let us turn our attention to the same measurements of scholarship men. It is interesting and instructive to observe that the scholarship men when taken in large groups tend to verify the conclusions reached by Drs. Porter, Byer, Christopher, Roberts, Leharzig and others as to the correlation of a superior mind with a superior body. This is shown rather strikingly by the order in which the scholarship men group themselves according to height, the highest scholars in Group I. being tallest, those in Group II. being nearly one half inch shorter. The scholarships in Group III. are not awarded according to college rank, but for some other special consideration. Although the order among the scholarship men themselves remains the same, that is, the highest scholars as represented by Group I. being the tallest, Group II. over one half inch shorter, etc., the great discrepancy between the height of the honor scholarship men, the stipend scholarship men, and the average student seems at once inconsistent with our premises. Although the honor scholarship men have risen nearly three quarters of an inch in height above the average university student of 1880, the average stipend scholarship men as shown in Group 14 (I., II. and III.) are about one quarter of an inch shorter. There is a difference of 1.2 inch between the height of the average student of to-day and the average stipend scholarship men, and a difference of three quarters of an inch between the average stipend scholarship men and the average honor scholarship men. The discrepancy between the average weight of the different groups is not so regular or well marked as that of the height, although it will be observed that there is a difference of 4.4 pounds between the average student and the honor scholarship men and a difference of 8.8 between the average student and the stipend scholarship men.

The comparison of strength between the average student and the scholarship men is rather more favorable to the latter. Although there is some 100 points difference in the tests of Groups 3, 4, and 7 and 14, all the groups of scholarship men have surpassed the strength test of the average university student of 1880. The height and weight of the student within normal limits may be said to represent his potential strength and vital capacity. The actual test of strength gauges his real functional power—or would so gauge it if each student tried to do the best he could. While the required physical test for athletes and scholarship men has undoubtedly stimulated many students to make greater physical efforts in preparation for the examination, it has made many of them simply content in doing just about enough to pass the minimum requirement. This in a measure accounts for the more uniform tests of the scholarship men, and the little difference between Groups I., II. and III. The average student, as shown in Groups 3 and 4 is more likely to try to make a good strength test than the scholarship men, as he is desirous of passing the minimal requirement for the athletic teams, in order to be eligible to one or more of these organizations. Although the average height and weight of all the scholarship men are below the average student of to-day, the average of the honor scholarship men is considerably above the average of the university students of 1880—while the average of the stipend scholarship men of the present time is not only below the average students of that year in point of weight, but is below the average of the stipend men of the early eighties. Although the number of men in Groups 6 and 9 is rather small to base definite conclusions upon, the numbers in the other groups are large enough to give conclusive evidence of the trend of physical development in the three great classes of Harvard students, namely, the scholars, athletes and the average students. The discrepancy in the physical measurements of the several groups of scholarship men and the average students raises questions which are in my opinion worthy of grave consideration. The physical superiority of Group I. over Group II. in point of height among both the honor and stipend class of scholarship men is perfectly consistent with acknowledged physiological truths in regard to mental and physical development. But the dominating factors that determine stature and weight are age, race and nurture. The medium or average age of Group I. of stipend scholarship men is 19 years, of Group II. 20 years, of Group III. 19 years and 3 months, and the Lawrence Scientific School Scholarship Group is 22 years. The average age of Groups I. and II. of the honor scholarship men is 18 years and 6 months, respectively. Here it will be noted that the honor scholarship men, though the youngest are the tallest, heaviest and strongest. Does the advanced age of the stipend men indicate inferior natural ability or retardation in mental and physical development due to preoccupation with other work? In either case the question also arises whether the stipend man's scholarship standing is not due to industry and patient application rather than to superior organic vigor.

In regard to race it is interesting to note that 77 per cent, of Group I. and 75 per cent, of Group II. of honor scholarship men were Americans, while only 62 and 71.5 per cent., respectively, of Groups I. and II. of stipend scholarship men were Americans. The Hebrew race had the next largest per cent., being 15.5 and 11 per cent, in the I. and II. honor scholarship class and 11.3 and 7.75 per cent., respectively, in the stipend scholarship class. But the English and Polish Hebrews, from whom the American Hebrews have largely descended, average only 66.5 inches and 63.8 inches, respectively, in height. The other races, all averaging below the Americans, except the English and Scotch, are represented by a very small per cent, in any of the groups, but the largest number of foreigners, from 30 to 40 per cent., is in the stipend scholarship class. In a measure, this fact would help account for the inferior stature of this class of students. The differences in height and weight, due to nurture in adults of the same age, sex and race, averages as high as 312 inches in stature and 7 pounds in weight. The honor scholarship men are presumably better nurtured than the stipend scholarship men, coming as they do from wealthier families where they have been better housed, fed and clothed, and better cared for generally. The difference between the average of Group I. of honor men and Group II. of stipend men is 1.4 inches in height and 4.4 pounds in weight. This extreme difference is probably partly due to race inheritance, and partly due to nurture, but what may be termed the organic or physiological factor plays an equally important part. It will be observed that there is little variation in weight between the different groups of scholarship men, in the honor men Group I. actually weighing over a pound less than Group II., and the stipend men of Group I. only equal the weight of Group II.

It will also be noticed that there is a close correlation between the weight and the strength in the different groups. This diminutive weight upon the part of all scholarship men may be accounted for in several ways. The most reasonable explanations, however, are lack of sufficient physical exercise, and mental over-training. In order to meet the demands of the present scholarship standard it is necessary to hold oneself down to many hours of highly concentrated and long-sustained mental effort. Under these circumstances the respiration and circulation are slowed down, the digestion is more or less imperfect, and the organic activity of all parts of the body except the brain is sadly interfered with. The body for the time being is literally being starved in order that the brain may be surfeited. If this intense mental activity is followed by a moderate amount of physical exercise, in which the large masses of muscle in the trunk and limbs are vigorously used, no harm follows from hard study. In developing the muscular system one not only adds to girth of trunk and limbs, and consequently to weight as seen in the physical condition of the 300 strong men in Group 5, but increases the functional power of heart, lungs, stomach and viscera—and consequently favors the nutrition and recuperation of the brain itself. If to intense or prolonged mental application are added worry, anxiety, fear of failure, loss of sleep, or great emotional strain—then mental work soon becomes exhausting. Add to prolonged physical effort the same kind of mental and emotional harrassments, and we soon have in the individual or athletic team a temporary state of physical and mental impairment which is familiarly attributed to "over-training." No one symptom is more indicative of this approaching collapse than loss of weight, and on the other hand no physical sign presages a return to bodily and mental efficiency more unerringly than a return to normal weight. Normal weight for the average student is about 2.05 pounds for every inch in height, for the university crews 2.17 and for the football teams and strong men 2.20. The army standard during the civil war was 2 pounds to the inch for the soldier of medium height.

The Harvard scholarship men range in weight from 1.87 in the lowest group to 1.99 in the highest. These chronic conditions of underweight on the part of the scholarship men are, in my opinion, largely due to excessive mental activity, accompanied in many cases by nervous anxiety and perpetual worry for fear that they will not come up to the desired standard and fail to receive honors or lose their scholarship stipend. Judicious physical exercise, out-of-door games and recreations, mingled freely with innocent social amusements, all tend to relieve this state of nervous tension and malnutrition, as many a hard-worked student knows from experience. The physical superiority of the honor scholarship men over the stipend scholarship men may be largely attributed to the fact that they do devote more time and attention to the care of their physique. When the stipend scholarship men are asked why they do not give more attention to their health and the upbuilding of their bodies, the almost invariable answer is: "We have no time for it," or words to that effect. In many cases this is literally true, as there are scholarship men at Harvard who have to do a considerable amount of outside work in addition to their college work in order to earn money enough to meet their expenses. But in the great majority of cases the answer of "no time" means that these men do not regard health and physical vigor of sufficient importance to work for it; or if they do, they fear that while they are taking time for improving their bodies, their nearest rivals are at the everlasting grind that will give them possession of the much-coveted scholarships. Some of the results are shown in the table to which we have referred. Here is an anomalous condition.

According to our records the physique of athletes and the average student during the past 25 years has greatly improved, while the physique of all the scholarship men of to-day is not only below the average student of the present time, but the physique of the stipend scholarship men is actually below that of the average student of 1880, and Group II. below the average of the stipend men in the early eighties. As the records we have quoted give for the most part the first-year measurements and tests of the students, they may be said to reflect the conditions that have acted upon them at their homes and preparatory schools rather than at the college. These formative influences, whatever they may have been, have affected the scholarship men as well as the athletes, but in a different way. The great interest that has been awakened during the past quarter century in health, hygiene, sanitation and physical education has begun to make itself felt throughout the country at large, and students are coming to the college now in better physical condition than ever before. This improved physical well-being has undoubtedly been greatly intensified by the time and attention given to athletics in the preparatory schools. The public interest awakened and the extensive advertising that athletes have received through the press have fired a considerable portion of our youth with an ambition to become large, strong and athletic. On the other hand, the intense mental and nervous activity of the age, the universal demand for a higher and broader intelligence, the great rewards for professional knowledge and skill, the prestige and traditions of the institutions of learning, have all combined to stimulate another set of our youth to great mental efforts. If athletics advertise the college, as so many persons affirm, they will tend to draw to its halls the young men who are fond of participating in athletic sports or of witnessing the athletic performances of others. Young men of a more studious frame of mind, who care little about athletics, would be attracted by the reputation of the individual professors, the academic standing of the institution, and the eminence of the positions held by its graduates.

It is very evident that a process of selection has been going on in the community during the past half century by which these two distinct types of young men, whom we may term scholars and athletes, have been attracted to the colleges and universities. Is this process of selection a natural one, or such a one as should exist in an institution of learning? Both classes have ideals and aims which are essentially different. Both classes are naturally antagonistic, and both classes are pursuing the means of education and training as though they were ends in themselves. The consequence is superior physiques with mediocre mental ability according to the college rank-book in one class, and inferior physiques with fine mental attainments in the other. Moreover, this want of harmony or sense of proportion between mental and physical efforts on the part of our students, which we all recognize, is greatly intensified by that crying evil of the age, the spirit of competition. Competition is to-day the arch enemy of all true culture, mental as well as physical. To recount all of the evils that may be attributed to this factor in education would prolong this article to an unwarrantable length. Let me return, therefore, to my premises.

If there is any truth in statistics the world's work and greatest achievements are to be attained by the men as a class who have the best brains in the best bodies. A large part of the athletic class will fail in the race of life for want of better trained minds, while an equally large class of scholarship men will be eliminated from the struggle for the want of more efficient bodies. What is the college doing to even up the chances of these two classes in their preparation for their life's work? She insists upon a required mental examination of all students, athletes included, upon entering college. Moreover, most colleges now require athletic students to attain a certain grade in their mental pursuits before they can be permitted to contend for honors in athletics. Would it not be altogether desirable for these colleges to require all scholarship men to attain a certain standard in their physical work before allowing them to compete for honors in scholarship? Such a plan would at least put the scholarly man on an equal footing with the athlete and give him a chance to attain something of that mental force, physical vigor and sustained energy upon which his success in life will so largely depend. Furthermore, inasmuch as the greatest amount of physical as well as mental improvement of which the individual is capable must take place during the formative period of his youth—should not the student come to college prepared physically as well as mentally for the ordeal before him? The moral effect of a physical requirement would be to throw the responsibility for physical condition back upon the parent, the preparatory schools and teachers, as well as upon the pupil himself. In my opinion a large part of the community is already prepared to meet this responsibility, as is indicated by the improved physical condition of the average student when he enters college. We have already shown that love of sports, games and physical exercise for themselves do not appeal to the scholarship student. The thing necessary is academic recognition of good health and physical vigor as an asset in education. In taking this step the college would simply be making a practical application of its own teaching. But in so doing it would not only improve the physique of the scholarship man, and thus increase his respect for physical training and athletics, but it would also increase the respect of the mass of students for scholarship men and scholarly attainments.