W. J. Sidis
by Harold Addington Bruce
(Journal of Abnormal
Psychology, 1923, 18, 274 - 275.)
A notable figure passes from the inter-related fields of normal and abnormal psychology
with the death of Boris Sidis. The prediction indeed may be confidently made that as time elapses it will increasingly be recognized that the
world is much in Sidis's debt for the larger knowledge now possessed regarding the nature and possibilities of human personality. Sidis was one of the first to undertake really scientific exploration of the subconscious region of the mind, and his findings therein were both varied and of practical importance. His formulation of the law of reserve energy and of the principal factors in suggestion, his demonstration of the value of the hypnoidal method as a means of gaining access to the subconscious, his exposition of the part played by the self-regarding instinct and by
over-development of the fear instinct in the causation of psychopathic maladies,
would alone suffice to give him a conspicuous place in the history both of psychology and of scientific
And Boris Sidis put to his credit these various achievements under circumstances
which emphasize his genius. Although all of his scientific work was done in the United States he was by birth a Russian, and he came to this country at the age of twenty as a friendless and almost penniless immigrant. This was in 1887. After a period of vicissitudes in New York he was accepted as a student of Harvard College, where he received his A.B. degree in 1894. In the meantime the young Russian had attracted the friendly attention of William James, was encouraged by the latter to specialize in the study of psychology, and in 1897 was made doctor of philosophy. That same year Sidis's first important book saw publication, "The Psychology of Suggestion." To that book Professor James contributed an introduction, in which he paid a generous tribute to its author's originality.
From Harvard, Sidis returned to New York to accept the position of associate in psychopathology in the then recently established Pathological Institute of the New York State Hospitals. Here he remained several years, developing his method of hypnoidization and effecting impressive cures in cases of functional nervous and mental disorder. Of these the most interesting psychologically was the
"re-association" of the Rev. Mr. Hanna, victim of an amnesia so complete as to constitute a remarkable instance of secondary personality. The detailed record of this case Sidis made available in his book, "Multiple Personality,"
written in collaboration with Dr. Simon. P. Goodhart. A little earlier had appeared his "Psychopathological Researches in Mental Dissociation,"
with chapters contributed by Dr. George M. Parker and Dr. William
Alanson White, the latter now superintendent of St. Elizabeth's Hospital at
In 1904 Sidis removed to Brookline, Massachusetts, to engage in the private practice of psychotherapy, to gain a medical degree from Harvard
Medical School, and to continue his scientific researches. Of the several papers and monographs that he
published while in Brookline the most important is his" Studies in Psychopathology" (first appearing in the
Boston Medical and Surgical Journal), with its statement of the law of reserve energy as explanatory of psychotherapeutic cures and as indicative of possibilities yet unrealized in the way of individual and racial development. During his Brookline sojourn also appeared Sidis's significant "Experimental Study of Sleep,"
verifying Claperède's theory of sleep as a protective rather than recuperative device, and setting forth the major requirements for sleep-production as established by Sidis's own experimental work on animals and human beings.
Five years were passed in Brookline. Then, in 1909, Sidis opened in Portsmouth, New Hampshire, a sanitarium for the
treatment of nervous affections. Thereafter he was chiefly active in the practice of psychotherapy, though he found time for some experimental work, contributed important articles to the JOURNAL OF ABNORMAL PSYCHOLOGY (of which he was an associate editor) and published a trilogy of books setting forth the basic principles of normal and abnormal psychology and of the causation of psychopathic maladies as they appeared to him. His death occurred suddenly, from cerebral hemorrhage, the morning of October 24, 1923, with but the slightest premonitory indication that he was not in his usual excellent health.
From a personal friendship of nearly twenty years the
writer can bear testimony that Boris Sidis was, to those
who enjoyed intimate acquaintance with him, one of the most genial and kindly of men as well as a scientist of real distinction and a highly
original thinker. But, of a retiring nature and absorbed in the problems of his work, he did not encourage anything in the way of a "following" of pupils to disseminate his findings and his doctrines. Nor was he in frequent contact with fellow-workers. Add an
uncompromising intellectual honesty that impelled him to a blunt
outrightness with regard to whatever seemed to him erroneous or
mischievous, and it is not difficult to understand why during his
lifetime Boris Sidis did not enjoy the full measure of recognition which
he merited, and which it would seem certain will eventually be accorded
OF THE SUBCONSCIOUS
[In H. A. Bruce, The
Riddle of Personality, Moffat Yard, 1915, 88-93.]
Equally impressive, as testifying to the value to the new methods of treating mental alienation, is the work of Boris Sidis, the Janet of the United States. And first a few
words as to Dr. Sidis's career, in itself most interesting. Of Russian birth, he came to this country when still extremely young,
and entered Harvard. It was not long before his industry, his alertness, and, above all, his originality, attracted the attention of Professor James, who conceived a hearty admiration for the young Russian and prophesied that he would be heard from after leaving Harvard. This prophecy was speedily fulfilled with the publication of his "The Psychology of Suggestion," which made it evident that a remarkably gifted investigator and thinker had entered the scientific field. About this time, too, opportunity knocked at Dr. Sidis's door in most unexpected fashion. Acting on the recommendation of Dr. Carlos F. MacDonald, president of the State Lunacy Commission, the New York Legislature had created a novel department of governmental
activity, a "pathological institute." This was intended to be, so to speak, an educational
annex to the State hospital system, its chief legal raison d'etre being that it might "provide instruction in brain pathology and other subjects for the medical, officers of the State hospitals." But, as luck would have it, a progressive and liberal-minded physician, Dr. Ira van Gieson, was appointed director, and the institute speedily developed into
something more than a mere hospital appendage.
Dr. van Gieson, who deserves to be ranked among American pathfinders of the subconscious, saw clearly that as then constituted psychiatry (the study of insanity) was in a dismal slough of despond and could make little progress until the problems of
insanity were approached from other than the purely medical standpoint. To this end he gathered
about him a staff of specialists in allied sciences, and as associate in psychology and psychopathology he selected Dr.
Sidis. It was in 1896 that the institute began work in earnest, and by 1899 Dr. van Gieson could
report to the State Commission that "much material has been accumulated by the director and his associates, and many scientific generalizations of theoretical and practical importance have been worked out." Among
these generalizations was Dr. Sidis's now famous "law of dissociation" which has thrown a flood of light on the mechanism both of insanity and of suggestion, and which we shall presently survey in brief.
But if Dr. van Gieson might justly feel proud of the results obtained in so short a time, it was none the less certain that the commission was dissatisfied with his
conduct of the institute. Criticism hinged on the fact that he was subordinating the educational to the experimental phase, and he was urged to pay more attention to the work of
instructing the asylum physicians. In vain he protested that "the main function of the institute is the investigation of the principles and laws of abnormal mental life." He was reminded that the act creating the institute contemplated other objects. A bitter controversy developed, and in the end he and his associates were swept from office with their work unfinished, and the institute was reorganized on a "practical" basis. For a time the little band of investigators
found refuge in a private laboratory, but ere long lack of funds caused their dispersal, Dr. Sidis removing to Brookline, Mass., where he continued his scientific work, to no small extent centering his efforts on elaborating the law of dissociation.
This law or
principle is connected with a novel conception in biology—the much-debated
theory of neuron motility, itself a product of recent investigation.
According to it the neuron (that is to say, the nerve cell and its
prolongations) is held to be an anatomical unity, possessing the power of
independent movement and securing concerted functional activity with other
neurons by means of a connection simply of contact. Having regard to this
theory—and appreciating the ease with which, under such conditions,
contact might be broken, neuron energy interfered with, and the detached
neurons either be utterly destroyed or form themselves into new
clusters—it seemed possible to Dr. Sidis to view mental disorders as the
accompanying psychical manifestations of neuron disaggregation. For
example, the individual, A, suffers from a severe illness, a blow, a
mental shock, and subsequently exhibits, it may be loss of memory, it may
be a proneness to hallucinations, it may be even a completely changed
personality. Dr. Sidis would explain all such phenomena on the ground that
the initial trouble, whatever its nature, whether physical or psychical,
had brought about a neuron disturbance with accompanying "dissociation" of
consciousness. More than this, he would apply the law of dissociation to
explain sundry physical disorders (as certain headaches,
1. Dr. Sidis is now (1915) conducting a sanitarium at Portsmouth, N. B., the Sidis Psychotherapeutic Institute.
Source: Houghton Library, Harvard,
Boris Sidis's papers.
BORIS SIDIS was born at Kieff,
Russia, May 6, 1868, the son of Moses and Mary (Marmor) Sidis. He died
at Portsmouth, N. H., Oct. 24, 1923. He married Sarah Mandelbaum, and
they had one daughter and one son, William James Sidis, who entered
Harvard at the age of eleven and was graduated cum laude at the age of
sixteen with the Class of 1914.
Sidis came from Russia to the
United States at the age of twenty, a friendless and almost penniless
student. After a period of vicissitudes in New York, he spent two years
and graduated with our Class. After three years in the Graduate School
be took his Doctor's degree. He received friendly encouragement from
William James, who contributed an introduction to his first book. For
several years he served as Associate in Psychopathology in the
Pathological Institute or the New York State Hospitals. Afterwards he
engaged in the private practice of psychotherapy, first in Brookline,
and later in his sanatorium for the treatment of nervous affections at
He was of a retiring nature,
and his absorption in his work and a bluntness springing from his
intellectual honesty and independence, prevented his obtaining the
following and recognition his distinction and originality deserved. To
his intimate acquaintances he was one of the most genial and kindly of
men (IX, 102: H.A.B.)"
This one-page unpublished MS may be part of a draft
for H. A. Bruce's The Riddle of Personality, perhaps Chapter 9,
page 102, published in 1915 by Moffat Yard.
Single typewritten page found in
Helena Sidis's files.
DR. BORIS SIDIS―Born in
Berditchev, Russia Oct. 12, 1867. At age of 17 imprisoned by Czar as political prisoner, for teaching peasants to
read, against Czarist law. Released and escaped to America 1887. AB Harvard
1894; AM 1895; PhD 1897; MD 1908. Assistant in Aristotelian Logic, Harvard 1896. Appointed by Gov. Theodore Roosevelt to Associate Psychologist and
Psychopathologist, Path. Inst. N.Y., State Hospitals 1896-1901. On endowment from Gordon Bennet established in 1901 Psychopathological Hospital and Psychopathic Lab. of New York Infirmary for Women and Children with Julia de Forest etc. Returned to Boston received MD and in practice 1909. Called by Dean of Chicago University to found Criminology Institute of Chicago
University in 1908. In 1909 given estate in Portsmouth New Hampshire by
Whittemore*. Founded Sidis Psychotherapeutic Inst. Was assoc. editor Archives of Neurology and
Psychopathology; editor Journal of Abnormal Psychology founded for him
by Morton Prince.
His main "work involved the treatment of private patients. Started while in New York the general reform of Mental Institutions―effects felt around the world. Great advances made in treatment of criminals.
Died in Portsmouth New Hampshire after attack of influenza from
an old ailment contacted while in prison in Russia.
* Incorrect, it was a
gift from Mrs. Frank Jones of Portsmouth.
Mrs. Martha S. Jones, of Boston, Mass., has presented her estate and
magnificent parks near Portsmouth, N. H., to Dr. Boris Sidis, of
Brookline, Mass., for the purpose of establishing a private hospital, to
be named 'The Maplewood Farms, Sidis Psychotherapeutic Institute,' in
which modern methods of psychopathology and psychotherapeutics will be
employed in the treatment of functional nervous diseases. The hospital
will open in the early spring.
Bulletin, 1910, 7, 75.]
THE HARVARD ALUMNI
The next edition of
the Quinquennial Catalogue will be published in June, 1910. It will of
great assistance to us if you will make any additions or corrections to
the statement given below, which represents your record as it appeared in
the last edition of the catalogue. Will you be good enough to make the
corrections on this sheet and return it to us at your earliest
Very truly yours,
EDGAR H. WELLS, Editor,
Boris Sidis, A.M. 1895; Ph.D.
(Philos.) 1897; M.D.1908 (Harvard Medical School).
Formerly Associate in Psychology and
Psychopathology at the Pathological Institute of the New York State
Director of the, Psychopathic Hospital and Psychopathological
Laboratory of the New York Infirmary for Women and Children.
Member of the American Psychological
Secretary of the American Psychopathological Society.
Member of the American Institute of Criminal Law and
Editor of the Archives
of Neurology and Psychopathology.
Associate Editor of
the Journal of
Alumni Association's Quinquennial Catalogue, 1910.)
of American Biography, Vol. 17, 152-53.
SIDIS, BORIS (Oct. 12, 1867 - 0ct.
24, 1923), psychologist, was born in Kiev, Russia, the son of Moses and Mary or Elizabeth (Marmor) Sidis. His family was in comfortable
circumstances, and he was tutored at home under the direction of his father until the age of seventeen, when he was sent to a government school at Kishinev in southern Russia. While there he was arrested for political reasons along with a number of other students, subjected to solitary confinement, and
then sent home where he remained under police surveillance for several years. He finally came to the United States in 1887 and settled in New York City. Being
without funds, he worked in factories and gave private lessons for a living, and in his spare moments studied in the public libraries. In
1892 he entered Harvard as a special student. In 1893 he was regularly enrolled, and received the A. B. degree in 1894, the A.M. in 1895; and the Ph.D. in 1897. He was married in 1894 to Sarah Mandelbaum, and they had two children. At Harvard he
attracted the attention of William James [q.v.], and it was undoubtedly due to James and Hugo
Münsterberg [q.v.] that he became interested in psychology. In 1898 he published his first book, The
Psychology at Suggestion, an attempt to explain the nature of the subconscious,
especially in relation to personality. The ideas he formulated on the subject of dissociation formed the basis of his future work. William James wrote a
complimentary preface to the book, describing it as an original work, although he could not
agree with all of Sidis' contentions.
Sidis returned to New York to accept the position of associate psychologist and psychopathologist
in the recently established Pathological Institute of the New York State Hospitals
from 1896 to 1901. While there he developed the method of treatment of functional
psychoses and obtained some interesting cures. In 1901 he became
director of the psychopathic hospital laboratory of the New York
Infirmary for Women and Children. He published his Psychopathological Researches,
Studies in Mental Dissociation in 1902, contributions by Drs. G. M,
Parker and W. A. White being included. He advanced the theory that psychoses were due to
mental dissociations. One of his most interesting cases, the
reassociation of the Rev. Mr. Hanna, who was suffering from amnesia and who had
acquired a second personality, is described in his book Multiple Personality, written in
collaboration with Dr. S. P. Goodhart, and published in 1905.
In 1904 Sidis returned to Massachusetts and settled in Brookline where he spent five
very active years, studying medicine at the Harvard Medical School, practising psychotherapy,
and continuing scientific research. Among the papers he published was "Studies in
Psychopathology," in the Boston Medical and Surgical Journal, Mar. 14, to Apr.
11, 1907, in which he described his theory of nerve energy in
connection with psychotherapeutic cures. An Experimental Study of Sleep (1909), based on
research performed in part at the Harvard Medical School through the friendly cooperation of Dr.
W. B. Cannon, attempted to prove that monotony and limitation of voluntary movements tend to
raise the threshold of psychomotor activities, and thus cooperate in the induction of sleep. In
1908 he received the M.D. degree from Harvard.
In 1909 he established the Sidis Psychothapeutic Institute at Portsmouth, N. H., where he continued to practise until his death.
The Psychology, of Laughter appeared in 1913, and expounded the Freudian idea that forms of
inferiority excite laughter. In his Symptomatology, Psychognosis, and Diagnosis of
Diseases (1914), however, he takes issue with the Freudian doctrine. In the same year he
published The Foundations of Normal and Abnormal Psychology, and in 1916,
The Causation and Treatment of Psychopathic Diseases. Sidis had very active and forceful mentality.
In addition to his special subject, he was an ardent student of political economy, philosophy,
and languages. He possessed a genial and kindly nature, but was apt to express his opposition
to what he considered fraudulent or dishonest with
abruptness and vigor. He was of a retiring disposition, and did not seek
a following of pupils. He made few contacts with his colleagues, but the
few friends he did make, among them Morton Prince [q.v.], were his
[Information from the
family; Who's Who in America, 1022-23; Harvard Coll. Class of 1894
(privately printed 1919); H. Addington Bruce, Boris Sidis―An
Appreciation," Jour. of Abnormal and Social Psychology, Oct. - Dec.
H. S. L.
See also his
Harvard Undergraduate Transcript.