Hektoen International

A Journal of Medical Humanities

Rachel Fleming and the non-reality of “racial types”

Barry Bogin
United Kingdom


Human “races” as depicted in the 19th century Nordisk familjebok  (Nordic Family Book Encyclopedia). Each person in the painting depicts one “race” of Asiatic people. Today, anthropologists and biologist reject such “race” categorization. The differences between human groups are better ascribed to biological plasticity.

During the early twentieth century several longitudinal studies of child growth were initiated in the United States and Europe. Such longitudinal studies take repeated measurements of the same children, usually once a year, and from the data both size and rate of growth (velocity) can be calculated. The first such study in the British Isles started in 1919 and was conducted by Rachel Mary Fleming (1882–1968). For the first eight years of this study Fleming performed this work in her spare time, in addition to her duties as Assistant Secretary of the Geographical Association. In 1927 she received a grant from the Medical Research Council to devote herself full-time to the data collection, analysis, and publication of a report. The growth study had been proposed by Herbert John Fleure, a zoologist, geographer, Honorary Secretary of the Geographical Association, and editor of Geography. Fluere was motivated by the debate between eugenicists (who believed in fixed races of people) and Boasians. Franz Boas, a migrant from Germany, had established the first university department of anthropology in the United States. He and his colleague Henry P. Bowditch, a Boston physician, compiled body measurements of tens of thousands of immigrant children and showed that while their parents were thin, short, and round-headed, the children grew-up to be more robust, taller, and long-headed. Boas coined the phrase “biological plasticity” to describe this rapid change.

Fluere, who wanted to establish the permanence of “racial types,” considered the idea of plasticity to be extreme and recommended it be “. . . discarded as serious anthropology.” He claimed that the Welsh and the English were distinct racial types, and that the Welsh were descendants of crossbreeding in 2500 BC between Anatolians and Mediterraneans that had created a “race” of restless mariners that Fluere named The Prospectors. This fanciful and totally incorrect idea was published by Sir Arthur Keith in an essay, “How did Britain’s racial divisions arise?” Keith, an advisor to Fleming’s longitudinal study, was a prominent anatomist and anthropologist, fellow of the Royal College of Surgeons, eugenicist, author of derogatory essays on the nature of Jews and Jewishness, and chief supporter of the fraudulent Piltdown Man fossil as evidence of an English-first evolution of Homo sapiens.

The growth study conducted by Fleming recorded the annual measurements of stature and head dimensions on children and youth three to eighteen years old in England and Wales. From these data Fluere hoped to substantiate his opinion that “. . .  for in every parish of our country markedly contrasted types live side by side, and yet, in spite of intermarriage as well as substantial similarity of conditions, they remain distinct.” Apparently, Fluere believed neither in genetics, which even eugenicists understood to have some effect on “type” via intermarriage, nor in environmental plasticity. Rather, he believed in immutable “racial types.”

Fleming published her report of the longitudinal study in 1933. Her analysis included a longitudinal curve of growth in stature, head length, and head breadth for each participant in the study, including more than 12,616 examinations of 4,293 children, juveniles, and adolescents.1 With statistical advice from the Medical Research Council, especially Mr. W. J. Martin, she produced thousands of graphs, not only of individual participants, but also groupings of participants. These graphs were made in reference to age, sex, stature, cranial measures, hair and eye color, and an attempt at “racial” and psychological classification. Although Fleming and Fluere continued to see “racial types” in the results, they had to divide the participants into fifteen such groups, not just Welsh and English. A modern interpretation of the data, both the central tendencies and variance, comes to a different conclusion, namely that there is abundant evidence of growth plasticity, especially in association with living conditions and food availability. Even Fleming seemed to lose faith in the idea of “racial type permanence” as she wrote, “It is admittedly difficult to classify groups according to racial type (which is, after all, merely a convenient term for summing up predominating physical characters) in the population of these islands where so much intermixture has taken place . . .”2

Fleming noted that some children grew throughout the teenage years, while others came to an early stop. Some children grew steadily during puberty and others experienced a rapid and distinct burst of growth. Some children were tall until puberty but then ceased growing and remained shorter than average as young adults. Today these patterns are well known and reflect normal individual differences in the “mode and tempo” (as Boas called them) of growth.

Fleming also noted forty individuals with unusual stature graphs. These children, of different ages, showed a longitudinal pattern of normal growth, followed by a period of growth arrest, and finally a resumption of normal growth. None of these children had been identified as growth-delayed during the cross-sectional medical examinations by the school physician. All attended a small village school and lived so far away from the school that they had to bring lunches, whereas other children who lived in the village went home to eat. The bag lunches were usually bread and jam, while the home dinners, the main meal of the day, were usually a hot lunch of meat and vegetables. The typical evening meals for all the children were bread, jam, and tea. Thus, only on weekends did the bag lunch children receive a full meal at dinner. The cause of the growth stunting seemed to be a combination of inadequate food intake, plus the energy expended in commuting to school. When the headmaster of the school initiated a hot dinner program for the commuting children, the growth differences between the village residents and rural students disappeared.

The growth study found that so-called “racial types” proved to be a product of nutritional status. This and a century of other research proved Boas was correct about plasticity. Fleming’s serendipitous finding of alterations in the pattern of growth associated with a change in school feeding policy was to be repeated by another British researcher, Elsie M. Widdowson, who found unexpectedly that a negative emotional environment during school mealtimes could suppress physical growth. Much scientific discovery is unexpected and found only when the individual researcher is willing to take the risk of exploring new territory, trying different strategies and methods, and thinking in new ways about how things work. Rachel Fleming exemplified these characteristics of noteworthy research. She played a part in changing social policy, especially in the introduction of free school lunch programs for undernourished children and the need to identify such children.

Fleming’s work formed a basis for the discovery that children’s nutritional requirements are divided between maintenance and repair of the body, work, and growth. When food intake is inadequate to meet all requirements, it is usually growth that suffers first. Later in life, nutritionally growth-stunted children become adults with reduced performance in both physical and mental work capacity. In retrospect this seems obvious, but it took decades of research, hundreds of millions of dollars, and much intellectual debate to reach this conclusion. With the advantage of her longitudinal data, Fleming also performed statistical analyses to reveal several features of the human adolescent growth spurt: “The results show that the fast-growing period for girls starts sooner, finishes earlier, and is less intensive than for boys. The sexes are equal in average height up to 11 years of age, between 11—14 girls are taller than boys, but from 14 onwards the boys become steadily taller than the girls” (Fleming 1933). These well-known features of human growth at adolescence were new discoveries to early twentieth century growth researchers. Many were puzzled by the growth spurt, some denied it really existed, and others had their Victorian sensibilities offended by the transitory “ascendancy” in stature of girls over boys during adolescence.

Fleming is not well-known today but was a serious and productive scholar in several fields. The University of Wales conferred on her the degree of M.Sc., honoris causa. She published a book of folktales for young readers, Ancient Tales from Many Lands, as she was also a historian of Russia, spoke Russian and other languages, and served as Librarian of the Royal Anthropological Institute (RAI) in London. She helped prepare the RAI journals Man (now titled The Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute of Great Britain) and Occasional Papers for the press. Perhaps unsurprisingly, in view of her heavy workload, by 1934 Fleming was obliged to resign due to ill health. Her friends, including Fleure, secured a Civil List Pension, and for the last twenty years of her life she lived in retirement on the Isle of Wight. “Rachel Mary Fleming is one of the category of people who are often invisible even in institutional histories, one of those who do their work with quiet devotion, playing a pivotal structural role in the ‘back room’ rather than the ‘front room’ of the discipline” (Maddrell, 2009, pp. 132).



Illustration from Nordisk familjebok. Artist Unknown. 1904. Bibliographisches Institut, Leipzig. Commons Wikimedia.



  1. Fleming RM. A Study of Growth and Development: Observations in Successive Years on the Same Children. With a Statistical Analysis by W. J. Martin. London: Medical Research Council. 1933.
  2. Bogin B. Patterns of Human Growth. 2nd ed. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press; 1999.
  3. Maddrell A. Rachel Fleming. In: Complex Locations: Women’s Geographical Work in the UK 1850-1970. Oxford: John Wiley & Sons, Ltd; 2009:132–133.



BARRY BOGIN received his Ph.D. in anthropology from Temple University in 1977. He worked at Loughborough University, UK, and the University of Michigan-Dearborn. He has expertise in human physical growth and development, nutritional ecology, evolutionary biology, Maya people, and human adaptation. The focus of his research is to explain how social, economic, and political forces influence human physical development. He has authored more than 130 books, articles, book chapters, and popular essays. These include the books Patterns of Human Growth, Human Variability and Plasticity, Human Biology: An Evolutionary and Biocultural Approach, and The Growth of Humanity.


Winter 2019 |  Sections  |  Anthropology

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