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Great War height and weight limits

Reader Bill Myers is looking for help with a family story.

“My dad tells the story that he went to enlist in the Marines for WW I and they sent him back home because he was underweight,” Bill writes. “Then, he gorged himself on bananas for a week and returned. This time they accepted him. I have always wondered what the minimum weight was to enlist for WW I. Can you help?”

WWI-MarineWhat a great question… and yes, The Legal Genealogist can help.

Even before World War I, any recruit in the U.S. military service had to meet minimum medical requirements for enlistment.

Those requirements, at the time of the Civil War, were fairly broad: “a man from 5 feet to 5 feet 4 inches in stature, and well proportioned in build and weight is … as serviceable a soldier as can be desired.”1

The height and weight requirements by the time of World War I were more formalized, and, for the U.S. Navy and the U.S. Marine Corps, were set out in written form for the guidance of the doctors who were required to do physical examinations of recruits.

The Manual for the Medical Department of the United States Navy, 1917, set out in detail the qualifications for recruits, both those who were considered adults — over the age of 21 years — and those who were minors — 17 years or older with parental consent.2

That document required a physical examination of all recruits for enlistment in the Navy and the Marine Corps, and specifically provided that “(e)very person before being enlisted must pass the physical examination prescribed in the medical instructions…”3

It went on to give a laundry list of conditions and problems that would lead a recruit to be rejected, including, in the general disqualifications category:

“(a) Mental infirmities: Insanity, idiocy, imbecility, dementia, feeble mindedness.”

“(b) Moral infirmities: Intemperance in the use of stimulants or narcotics, evidence of felony, masturbation, sodomy.”

“(c) Diseases of the cerebrospinal system: Epilepsy, chorea, all forms of paralysis, tabes dorsalis, neuralgia, stuttering or other impediment of speech.”

“(d) Constitutional diseases: Feebleness of constitution, poor physique, impaired general health (tuberculosis?) syphilis.”4

And then there was a laundry list of special disqualifications, of the skin, the head, the spine, the ears, the eye, the face and more.5

And, yes, the directives to the medical examiners set out the height and weight limits in detail. For adults, those 21 or older, the minimum height to serve was 64 inches — 5’4″ — and the minimum weight was 128 pounds.6 But there was a sliding scale: the taller the recruit, the more he was expected to weigh: at 65 inches, 130 pounds; at 66 inches, 132 pounds; at 67 inches, 134 pounds; at 68 inches, 141 pounds; at 69 inches, 148 pounds; at 70 inches, 155 pounds; at 71 inches, 162 pounds; at 72 inches, 169 pounds; and at 73 inches, 175 pounds.7

For a minor, at 17 years of age, he had to be at least 62 inches tall (5’2″) and weight 110 pounds. At 18, he had to be 64 inches tall and weigh 115 pounds; at 19, 64 inches and 120 pounds; and at 20, 64 inches and 125 pounds.8

For desirable adult recruits, a variation of not more than one inch in height or 10 pounds in weight, not to fall below 128 pounds, was allowed “when the applicant for enlistment is active, has firm muscles, and is evidently vigorous and healthy.”9

So Bill’s World War I enlistee Dad was a skinny kid during the Great War, but was able to bulk up enough to get in under the minimum limit.

It’s details like this that either make or break our family stories, right? It’s a struggle to find the details to help flesh out what we’ve been told, but with digitized books like this one on Google Books and elsewhere, we can add the information we need to tell the whole story.


  1. Karl E. Friedl, “Body Composition And Military Performance: Origins Of The Army Standards,” in Bernadette M. Marriott and Judith Grumstrup-Scott, editors, Body Composition and Physical Performance: Applications for the Military Services (Washington, D.C. : National Academies Press, 1992), HTML version at National Center for Biotechnology Information ( : accessed 14 Aug 2016).
  2. Bureau of Medicine and Surgery, Manual for the Medical Department of the United States Navy (Washington, D.C. : Government Printing Office, 1917); digital images, Google Books ( : accessed 14 Aug 2016 2016).
  3. Ibid., §2058, at 125.
  4. Ibid., §2079, at 129.
  5. Ibid., at 129-130.
  6. Ibid., §2083, at 132.
  7. Ibid., §2082.
  8. Ibid., §2084.
  9. Ibid., §2083.
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