Big Enough

PBS Premiere: June 28, 2005Check the broadcast schedule »

The Height Gap


There is a rueful tone to his nostalgia. His father arrived with no money, no English, and no marketable skills, Komlos says. For a year, he worked in a factory, making belts, for a dollar an hour. When it was clear that he would never be promoted, he quit and started his own business, making leather watchbands at home. In Hungary, there had always been a market for handmade goods, but Chicago stores were full of cheap imports. To compete with Hong Kong, Herbert Komlos had to work sixteen hours a day while his wife worked ten, and John put in twenty-five hours on the weekend. They ate better than in the old country, but only a little. "Everyone has a story like mine, if they were born with my religion in my part of the world," Komlos says. And those experiences are spelled out in their bodies.

Komlos now knows that he arrived in America at a pivotal point in its history. Over the next fifty years, by most indicators dear to economists, the country remained the richest in the world. But by another set of numbers -- longevity and income inequality -- it began to lag behind Northern Europe and Japan. It's this shift that fascinates Komlos, and that emerges so vividly in his height data.

One evening last winter, Komlos and I were walking by the U.S.O. office at the Philadelphia airport, when he stopped to watch a batch of Coast Guard recruits who were shipping out to Cape May, New Jersey. "Look at that," he said. "Hardly any of them is six feet tall." Komlos had to catch an 8 p.m. red-eye to Munich, but he couldn't resist taking this group's measure. Standing at a discreet distance, he slowly sized up each man as if with a pair of calipers. "Amazing," he said. "The average German soldier is a hundred and seventy-nine centimetres -- about five foot ten and a half. These guys are more like me."

Big Enough: Photo: Measuring the height of six policemenMeasuring the height of six policemen. Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division, LC-USZ62-102388

For centuries, he explained, governments have kept careful records of their soldiers' heights, providing a baseline against which modern populations are compared. (Records for women are much more scarce, but they tend to follow the same trends.) Looking down these rows of men, four abreast, Komlos could see the shadowy ranks of their ancestors lined up behind them, from West Point cadets and Citadel graduates to Union soldiers, Revolutionary War soldiers, and fighters in the French and Indian War.

If you were to stretch a string from the head of the earliest soldier in that row to the head of the most recent recruit, you might expect it to trace an ascending line. Humans are an ever-improving species, the old evolution charts tell us; each generation is smarter, sleeker, and taller than the last. Yet in Northern Europe over the past twelve hundred years human stature has followed a U-shaped curve: from a high around 800 A.D., to a low sometime in the seventeenth century, and back up again. Charlemagne was well over six feet; the soldiers who stormed the Bastille a millennium later averaged five feet and weighed a hundred pounds. "They didn't look like Errol Flynn and Alan Hale," the economist Robert Fogel told me. "They looked like thirteen-year-old girls."

Fogel, who won the Nobel Prize in Economics in 1993, is the man most responsible for Komlos's interest in height. In the fall of 1982, when Komlos was working on a Ph.D. in economics at the University of Chicago (he had earlier earned a Ph.D. in history there), Fogel gave a lecture on stature that Komlos attended. Most historians, if they thought about height at all, tended to assume that it was tied to income. The more people earn, the better they eat; the better they eat, the taller they grow. "Men grow taller and faster the wealthier their country," the French hygienist and statistician Louis-Rene Villerme wrote in 1829. "In other words, misery... produces short people."

Fogel knew it wasn't that simple. In 1974, he and Stanley Engerman published an exhaustive study of slave economics entitled "Time on the Cross." Historians had long insisted that slavery was not only inhuman; it was bad business -- hungry, brutalized workers made the poorest of farmers. Fogel and Engerman found nearly the opposite to be true: Southern plantations were almost thirty-five per cent more efficient than Northern farms, their analysis showed. Slavery was a cruel and inhuman system, but more so psychologically than physically: to get the most work from their slaves, planters fed and housed them nearly as well as free Northern farmers could feed and house themselves.

"Time on the Cross" was greeted with uncommon fury in academia -- one reviewer consigned it "to the outermost ring of the scholar's hell." Yet each point that critics blew apart left a scattering of uncomfortable facts behind it. The most dramatic example came from a graduate student of Fogel's, Richard Steckel, who is now at Ohio State. Steckel decided to verify his mentor's claims by looking at the slaves' body measurements. He went through more than ten thousand slave manifests -- shipboard records kept by traders in the colonies -- until he had the heights of some fifty thousand slaves; then he averaged them out by age and sex. The results were startling: adult slaves, Steckel found, were nearly as tall as free whites, and three to five inches taller than the average Africans of the time.

The height study both redeemed and rebuked "Time on the Cross." Although the adult slaves were clearly well fed, the children were extremely small and malnourished. (To eat, apparently, they had to be old enough to work.) But Fogel was more than willing to stand corrected. This wasn't just another data set, he realized. Height records offered a new angle on history, and they were readily available. Measurements of French military conscripts date back to 1716, and anthropologists have collected much older skeletal measurements. "There are millions of these data lying around and nobody is looking at them," Komlos remembers Fogel suggesting at the lecture. All that was needed was a few good graduate students to gather them up.

"It sounded hopeless," Komlos told me. "To study the history of human height with no funding and no real support in the field. It sounded very hopeless." Anthropometric historians need tens of thousands of measurements to gauge height trends -- enough to factor out the effects of age, sex, and, above all, DNA. Finding and tabulating those heights requires grants, research assistants, and -- ideally -- tenure. Yet to most economists the whole endeavor sounded suspiciously like quackery, if not something worse: phrenologists and Nazi scientists, too, had laid great store in body measurements.

"There were belly laughs at first," Richard Steckel remembers. "The economists hadn't worked in developing countries and they hadn't studied the historical data on height. Most of them came from privileged backgrounds, where most differences in height are genetic. So the knee-jerk reaction was 'This is ridiculous. It's a monumental waste of resources.'" Among some social scientists, height research was well established. In the early nineteen-fifties, Nevin Scrimshaw, who set up the International Nutrition Foundation, in Boston, had studied child development throughout the Third World. Every bout of diarrhea or measles, he found, can bump a child off his growth curve. Every period of good nutrition can nudge him back on track. Most economists and historians ignored these short-term trends, however, while public-health workers ignored the long term. "And the two sides didn't talk to each other," Steckel says.

Next » | "While Steckel worked backward in time, Komlos worked forward, tracing American and European heights from the seventeenth century on..."