Fitting Standards: Big Data in Human Biology, the Military, and Industry (1940-1980)

Opportunity Description:

This research opportunity will kickstart my historical research project titled Fitting Standards: Big Data in Human Biology, the Military, and Industry (1940-1980). The project explores the widespread use of human data in medical, military, and industrial contexts. It will show how wartime concerns about soldier health and population nutrition generated a boom in large-scale anthropometric studies of living subjects in the second half of the twentieth century. The project follows a generation of military doctors, ergonomic experts, and human growth researchers who left prewar careers in race science behind and repurposed their anthropometric skills to assess individuals’ bodily needs relative to their population. Researchers in various domains collected and exchanged vast amounts of human data to set standards for human growth and ergonomic fit. As this work required the standardization and normalization of human variation and form, particularly in relation to race and sex, new “natural” racial and sexual growth scales and body standards were developed that we still use today. The project will show how the tools of this work, such as the widely used Harpenden skinfold caliper and the Tanner maturity scales, have their origins in race science and the military. Fitting Standards will thus reveal surprising connections between seemingly unrelated scientific, technological, and social concerns in the twentieth century.

This project uses historical methodology. In particular, it uses approaches common in the history of science, such as reconstructing scientific practices and studying their relationship with scientific theories of the body. It intervenes in the history of science by showing how prewar racism and sexism persisted in the second half of the twentieth century in scientific practices, in this case anthropometry.

Primary Responsibilities: 

The undergraduate researcher will be able to develop their research and communication skills alongside this project. The researcher will assist in finding, organizing, and summarizing archival material and published sources. They will also conduct historical research into Cold War science, postwar decolonization and the making of the “developing world,” and postwar human biology and global health. Finally, they will have the opportunity to conduct independent research projects on a topic relevant to the overall project

Preferred Skills: 

Ideally, the undergraduate researcher will have had training in historical methodology and experience in finding and analyzing primary and secondary sources. A background in history of science is preferred. I am looking for someone who is keen to take initiative, conduct independent research, and share their thoughts and theories about the material studied in conversation and writing.

Application Process: 

Please send Dr. Clever your CV and a short (1 page max) description why you would be interested in and a good fit for this position.

Application Requirements: 

  • Submit CV
  • 500 Word Statement of Interest
  • For more information on this opportunity, please contact:

    Iris Clever
    Institute on the Formation of Knowledge