Every semester at Harvard University, students take their clothes off. The event is called Primal Scream , and it happens on midnight before the first day of final exams. As the hour approaches, there is a palpable buzz in the central quad, the Harvard Yard. Students gather in various states of undress: towels and trenchcoats, gym shorts and jeans.
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Shocking, because what he found was an enormous cache of nude photographs, thousands and thousands of photographs of young men in front, side and rear poses. Disturbing, because on closer inspection the photos looked like the record of a bizarre body-piercing ritual: sticking out from the spine of each and every body was a row of sharp metal pins. The employee who found them was mystified. The athletic director at the time, Frank Ryan, a former Cleveland Browns quarterback new to Yale, was mystified. But after making some discreet inquiries, he found out what they were -- and took swift action to burn them. He called in a professional, a document-disposal expert, who initiated a two-step torching procedure. First, every single one of the many thousands of photographs was fed into a shredder, and then each of the shreds was fed to the flames, thereby insuring that not a single intact or recognizable image of the nude Yale students -- some of whom had gone on to assume positions of importance in government and society -- would survive. It was the Bonfire of the Best and the Brightest, and the assumption was that the last embarrassing reminders of a peculiar practice, which masqueraded as science and now looked like a kind of kinky voodoo ritual, had gone up in smoke. The assumption was wrong. Thousands upon thousands of photos from Yale and other elite schools survive to this day.
Between the s and the s, several ivy league colleges had a very strange requirement for all their incoming freshmen students. Harvard, Yale, Wellesley College, Vassar as well as Brown University, were among the elite American colleges that asked all the young men and women enrolled in their first year, to pose nude. He wrote:. I reported to a windowless room on an upper floor, where men dressed in crisp white garments instructed me to remove all of my clothes. And then — and this is the part I still have trouble believing — they attached metal pins to my spine. There was no actual piercing of skin, only of dignity, as four-inch metal pins were affixed with adhesive to my vertebrae at regular intervals from my neck down. I was positioned against a wall; a floodlight illuminated my pin-spiked profile and a camera captured it. The procedure did seem strange … But I soon learned that it was a long-established custom at most Ivy League and Seven Sisters schools … All of them — whole generations of the cultural elite — were asked to pose. The unusual photo sessions were part of a larger project run by a scientist of psychology, William Herbert Sheldon, who conducted them in co-operation with the universities.
Elevated on a pedestal, he gazes into the distance, his muscular arm tucked behind his back. Though the statue has received great attention, few are aware of the sources of data used to sculpt it: thousands of Harvard men, carefully measured—nude, for the sake of precision—and photographed. The pink and beige data forms are in the Harvard Archives, available to any researcher. So are the thousands of naked photos, divided between 31 tightly-packed boxes. The photos feature each man from behind, head-on, and in profile. The three images are arranged side-by-side on a thick white note card, each of which is tucked into an envelope. Hundreds of envelopes line each box. The men gaze into the camera seriously, chins tilted up—for the most part, seemingly unconcerned with the prospect of a year-old girl peering back at them years later.