Why Are So Many Great Men Short?

Stephen Fry and the “QI” panel examine the aforementioned question.

Although this common assertion is largely spurious, it’s still somewhat interesting to learn that many of the so-called “great men” of historical note were so diminutive, relatively speaking. For example, I was quite surprised that Admiral Nelson was only 5’ 4” tall.



Filed under History, Humour

29 responses to “Why Are So Many Great Men Short?

  1. Sure, but check out this neat little table:

    In the 19th Century, the average height of an English soldier was 5’5. Nelson was born in the mid-18th Century.

  2. I know it’s not anomalous, relatively speaking for the time, but still kind of odd to imagine that many of these heroic figures were quite stunted by our present measures.

    I had the misfortune of marrying into a generally “tall” family and being just 5’ 11” was therefore regarded as hopelessly “short” — this was a pathetic physical defect that was hammered home to me on a constant basis. It’s something that I’d never even considered prior to that time. Since then however the matter of height has become a curious subject.

  3. jkg

    Red, we have covered Mock the Week, Have I Got News For You, and now, you have touched on the third of my trifecta, QI. This is really a treat. If you need to find episodes, I suggest going on to ninjavideo.net. They have them archived with all sorts of interesting episodes. They even covered Game Theory one time (yes, I am channeling my inner geek).


    Since I am a student of both evolution and ecology, a person you might want to check out is Jared Diamond. He explores that very phenomenon you describe of what is largely termed “demographic determinism” in which historical physical environments influence greatly the physiological development of people located in a geographic region. I think you would like his book Guns, Germs, and Steel amongst others.

  4. jkg

    PS. I also do have a QI Ringtone of Fry saying things like “Damn You all” and this one as well in which Alan Davies made a joke about that going up on youtube and becoming a ringtone:

  5. Ted

    Not that he was “great” but Rene Levesque was very short too. A little while ago, they erected a life sized statute of him in the capital and the separatists got all in an offended tizzy because they perceived it as an insult intended to belittle him.

    I’m glad they pointed out that Napolean was not short. Not only was it British propaganda, but the French and British measured inches slightly differently such that 5’7″ as we would measure it now (which was 1″ above average then) was recorded as 5’2″ in France back then. Just one of those nerdy little factoid that only history Cliff Clavens like me know. I’m guessing you wish you had the last 20 seconds of your life back right about now.

  6. Barkman

    Just one of those nerdy little factoid that only history Cliff Clavens like me know. I’m guessing you wish you had the last 20 seconds of your life back right about now.

    Not at all. I’ve always bought into Napolean being that short. Now I know. 🙂

  7. JKG — I’m a BBC junkie. Its panel shows on BBC4 are always delightful. The “News Quiz” and the “Now Show” are reliably hilarious. This past week I was wading through Melvyn Bragg’s exploration of the Royal Society.

  8. jkg

    There is something about BBC programming that makes it thoughtful and entertaining at the same time. Heck, I am actually watching, Chemistry: A Volatile History, but they make it very interesting just because they know how to make a documentary show. PBS is a close second, but compared to the BBC, CBC’s Passionate Eye and Docuzone or whatever is pretty paltry. It is funny how even though Britain putatively has many examples of ridiculous celebrity culture and inanity, they still managed to maintain that sophistication through which they provide very informative and insightful programming.

  9. Taller/bigger men tend to be drawn into more physical disciplines – even if they don’t wish to. Sports, labor jobs, etc. If I’m 6’5″, and 230 lbs, I might be really good at pushing a wheel barrow. People of shorter stature – not so physically gifted, perhaps – are able to focus on learning disciplines, be it military science, history, the sciences, the arts, etc. It is a form of “selection” in the species.

    Being from the “learned” disciplines ensures the increased chances of “greatness”.

  10. Wouldn’t consider pro athletes “great” in the same way either (what do they contribute to the human race?)…

  11. No pun intended there…

    I don’t know, I think there’s certainly a “great” quality to athletic proficiency and physical achievement in sports that’s not dissimilar in some ways to art. At their best, they’re both inspirational forms of expression that draw on our best qualities and provide memorable experiences. Throwing a perfect pitch or hitting a 300 yd. drive is a thing of beauty and a joy forever…

  12. JKG — I’d like to personally throttle the people that run the History Channel (aka “History TV” here in Canada) to death considering the vast number of illuminating/entertaining programs that the Beeb and other outlets in Britain produce. Instead, we get an endless stream of tendentious WWII “documentaries” and rubbish like “Pawn Stars” and “Ice Road Truckers”…

    Thank goodness for the Internets!

  13. Ted — I’m with Barkman; that was a well-spent 20 seconds. Thanks for the “moment of geek”…

  14. I recently ordered BBC Canada just so that I can watch Top Gear every night without having to download it. I have been watching Oz and James Drink to Britain on Youtube lately, that’s pretty good.

    Everyone heard of the Potsdam Giants? One of the funnier footnotes of the 18th Century:

  15. Yep, I was familiar with them. The French Imperial Guard under Napoleon employed similar standards, the required height for grenadiers being 5′ 10″. With their helmets adding another foot, the effect must have been quite impressive.

  16. … and why are some of the greatest women in history …. women?

    As a shorter man, this is all crap. People are people. Some rise to prominence in their field and some don’t.

    What shorter men overcome as obstacles is the predjudice of some taller people, who use their taller stature in the same manner as some use their skin colour – as a means to differentiate themselves as superior. This is of course, a means of compensating for some esteem deficiency in other areas of personality, aptitude, appearance, intelligence, etc …

    As to athletic prowess, this is not determined solely by size. I am in my mid-40’s and I outplay men twenty years my junior in Hockey. My size did not prevent me from being a very good Hockey player. It did prevent me from playing Major Junior Hockey however – which prevented me from achieving higher “status” in hockey. That is a different thing.

    Shallow is as shallow does. Ever.

  17. Ted

    It is interesting that such programs can be very successful in the UK, but considered so toxic here the format is rarely tried.

    And by “here” I mean the US and English Canada. The Quebec show Tous le monde en parle seems to me to be the equivalent sort of thing, with wine and French, and it is the most watched Canadian TV program in the entire country and one of the most watched programs of any kind across the whole country. And its a talk show, in French, for 2 hours. Regularly pulls in 1.5 to 2.0 million viewers and sometimes as much as 3.5M.

    So popular, they even sell their own wine glasses.

    And it’s a backbreaker for politicians. It is a mandatory rite of passage for any serious Quebec politician, but they open it up to questions from the audience and they are notoriously hard on guests. You won’t ever see Harper on the program, I can assure you (Ignatieff has been on twice, once was the infamous “war crimes” interview).

    I think there would be an audience for something like that but after so many failures at the talk show format – Ralph Benmurgi, Allan Thicke, etc. – English producers seem gun shy. I could see Gian Gomeshi hosting something like that and making it work.

  18. Ted — The talk-show format has never really taken off in English Canada for some reason. Even Peter Gzowski, who was marvelous on radio, bombed horribly on TV. George Stroumboulopoulos has done a pretty good job at morphing that format into something watchable and entertaining.

    I think that a version of BBC’s always lively “Question Time” program would play well on Newsworld.

  19. Omar

    At seven foot-two, I have difficulty relating to the plight of the ‘little man’, but Greatness is my middle name.

  20. Ti-Guy

    …with wine…

    *ahem* It’s well known the Irish-Scots can’t hold their liquor. There’s part of the problem right there. Then there’s the Protestant attitude to drinking and WON’T SOMEONE THINK OF THE CHILDREN!!

    Otherwise, I think getting a group English Canadians loosened up with a little wine to have a convivial/animated conservation would in fact be something that finally makes that format work. The Hour with Strombo is OK, but it’s too hypersonic and the agenda is too packed to treat some of the subjects with the depth they require.

    I’ve written off TVO’s The Agenda almost completely. It seems lately that at least 75% of their guests are Americans, since the topic is usually “Where is Canada’s version of [something American]?”

  21. jkg

    ah, but Irish Catholics can hold their liquor as my extended family can attest.

    Strombo does a good job in keeping things engaging, especially with his guest selection. but it is too on the surface at times. It seems he is trying to be everything at once, so anything insightful just slips by.

  22. English Protestants aren’t indifferent slouches in that department; at least the ones hailing from Yorkshire… 😉

  23. i’m almost certain this subject was addressed in an episode of super chicken.


  24. Omar — 7′ 2″… Really? I’m amused by the thought of you negotiating the world from that lofty height.

  25. Omar

    Oh I get by. Finding a comfortable fitting condom? Whole other story.

  26. Omar

    Wanna hear something rather strange, but exciting at the same time? I’m having a baby in June! 7′ 2″ and able to give birth as well! I’m amazing.

  27. I haven’t used a condom in 30 years. Aren’t they all “Extra-Large” now?

    Ironically, the “roominess” afforded by that particular marketing deceit will probably result in a lot of unwanted children.

    Good luck with that.

  28. Tomm

    I will try to steer us back on topic…

    I intend to offer a wager that Stalin was shorter than Napolean and see if I can make some beer money.

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