William James Sidis was a genius. He was by far the most precocious intellectual
child of his generation. His death in 1944 as an undistinguished figure was made
the occasion for reawakening the old wives tales about nervous breakdowns,
burned out prodigies and insanity among geniuses.
Young Sidis was
truly an intellectual phenomenon. His childhood achievements ranked with those
of John Stuart Mill, Thomas Macaulay, and Johann Goethe. By the time William
Sidis was two he could read English and, at four he was typing original work in
French. At the age of five he had devised a formula whereby he could name the
day of the week for any given historical date. At eight he projected a new
logarithms table based on the number twelve. He entered Harvard at the age of
twelve and graduated cum laude before he was sixteen. Mathematics was not
his only forte. At this age he could speak and read fluently French, German,
Russian, Greek, Latin, Armenian and Turkish. During his first year at Harvard
University the boy astounded students and scientists with his theories on
"Fourth Dimensional Bodies."
behind the gun" in this boy's amazing intellectual attainments is supposed
to have been his father, a graduate in psychology at Harvard and a close friend
of William James, after whom the boy was named. Dr. Boris Sidis believed in
awakening in the child of two an interest in intellectual activity and love of
knowledge. If you started early enough and worked intensively, Dr. Sidis claimed
that by ten a child would acquire a knowledge equal to that of a college
graduate. The boy’s father published articles urging other parents to follow
his methods. He castigated the school authorities for their "cramming,
routine and rote methods," which he said, "tend to nervous degeneracy
and mental breakdown."
Sidis pointed to
his son, William, as a successful example of his methods. He wrote: "At the
age of twelve the boy had a fair understanding of comparative philology and
mythology. He is well versed in logic, ancient history, American history and has
a general insight into our politics and into the ground-work of our
constitution. At the same time he is of extremely happy disposition, brimming
over with humor and fun?"
Whether or not his
childhood life was psychologically normal, William's life after Harvard was a
series of unhappy incidents. He engaged in obscure mechanical jobs because, it
was reported, "he did not want to think." At the age of twenty-four he
estranged himself from his parents and to his last days the gap between parents
and son remained unreconciled, though toward his sister he always felt a
brotherly love which was expressed by a bond of friendship and mutual interests.
Toward the press, William Sidis bore an everlastingly strong hatred.
From this story
the newspapers and the general public drew some ill-formed conclusions about
William Sidis and genius in general. Newspaper writers pointed out that his
"genius had burned out," that he was "tired of thinking." By
comparison it was stated that musical geniuses are less likely to burn out. The
father’s system was held responsible for making the boy a prodigy. The
parental pushing was blamed for the mental breakdown and antisocial attitude.
From his desire to keep out of the limelight and taking obscure jobs that would
pay for his subsistence, William Sidis, the boy prodigy, was made out to be at
the time of his death a lonely, eccentric, prodigious failure" whose
intellect had deteriorated.
several newspaper reports, William' Sidis was supposed to have had a brief
mental breakdown at the age of twelve, after which it was said, "he
returned to school brilliant as ever, but moody, and distrustful." Let us
examine some of the true facts the background of this case of genius.
I first checked on
the occurrence of the supposed brief mental breakdown. Students of abnormal
psychology know that "brief mental breakdowns" in children of twelve
are extremely rare. Both William's mother and his sister Helena, informed me
that "he did not have a nervous breakdown." Replies to correspondence
from many persons who knew William Sidis have convinced me that the idea of his
having had a mental breakdown either early or late in life is erroneous. It
seems that during the summer vacation when as a youngster the newspapers
reported him to have suffered his mental illness he was at his father's
sanitarium at Portsmouth, New Hampshire. But, as his sister explained,
"this was their home." Dr. Boris Sidis ran a sanitarium for the cure
of psychopathic cases and the Sidis family, including William, lived there.
It is true that
the father's concentration on academics to the complete neglect of play and
friends for the boy was wrong and unhealthy by any standards. However, the boy
had a prodigious capacity to begin with. At five he had a mathematical
ability that surpassed his father's. And it is doubtful whether the parents
could have curbed it. Consider little Joel Kupperman, the "wonda
child" of the Quiz Kids. At the age of five he did algebra and geometry
problems mentally that few college professors could imitate. The Kuppermans are
above average in intelligence, the mother is a former teacher, and the father,
an engineer. They have used no system with Joel. His mother says: "Where he
learns these things is more than I know," but they keep him supplied with
all the books he wants.
youngster, whose history appears to approximate more closely that of young
Sidis, is Master Merrill Kenneth Wolf, enrolled as a sophomore at Yale
University at the age of twelve. The boy's parents, both attorneys, insist that
they are average persons in such matters as intelligence and attainments. Yet,
the father. Morris H. Wolf, never attended school but like his son studied law
at home; formerly a reporter for the London Daily Mail, he has published
three books and is an accomplished musician. Mrs. Wolf had informed reporters
that the education of their son began when he amazed them by starting to talk at
the age of four months. By the time he was two, Kenneth Wolf had finished all
juveniles and showed an interest in adult works of science, history, and
philosophy. In addition to his grasp of French, English grammar, zoology, and
chemistry, the boy is a musical prodigy with that rare gift of absolute pitch.
their zeal, neither the Kuppermans, the Wolfs, nor the Sidises could have given
their children the stupendous intellectual capacities that these youngsters
manifested at so tender an age. Their giving was primarily in the nature of the
germ plasm, followed to some extent by educational nurture.
William Sidis, the facts in his background are more convincing as concerns
family heritage. His mother schooled herself at home through elementary and high
school, and then was accepted at the Boston University School of Medicine where
she received her M.D. degree. Boris Sidis, William's father, earned three
degrees from Harvard before he was thirty, though he arrived from Russia at the
age of twenty. Moreover, on both parental sides, the family, from grandparents
to cousins, includes many whose prodigious intellect is a matter of world
In any case, we
can be quite certain that genius is not made by parents' actions. No, William
Sidis was not made a prodigy by his father, he was born to be one.
That Sidis was
socially maladjusted as an adult cannot be attributed to any simple set of
circumstances. That he had not been taught to play in childhood may be
considered a definite parental lack of foresight contributing to this
maladjustment. However, we must recognize that it is not easy to find playmates
or childish games to amuse or interest an adult mind in a young body. The
parents of any precocious child will testify to that.
Sidis, as a youngster, had been unwholesomely placed in the public eye by
association with his father's psychological fame, is a fact of record. Out of
this probably grew the eventual separation between patents and son when the
youth reached adulthood. As long as he lived, the thought of being considered a
public spectacle was positive poison to the soul of Bill Sidis. He
refused to have his name attached to any of his later writings and turned down
offers of large sums from publishers who would not agree to his use of a
pen-name. He won a successful suit against the New Yorker Magazine for
placing him in a ridiculous light in the public eye in 1937 in one of
their "profiles." Sarah Sidis gave a partial explanation for her son's
lifelong animosity toward the press. She related that as a child, returning home
from school, a couple of newspapermen would descend upon the boy. While one held
him, the other would take his picture. As a youth and as a man, Bill Sidis
wanted to be left alone to live as an average individual, and said so, many
times. He object bitterly to the idea of being stamped a "genius" and
treated as side-show with the connotation of "queerness" that he knew
to be associated with genius in the uninformed public mind. After his death, one
friend of Bill Sidis wrote a letter which appeared in the Contributor's Column
of the Boston Traveler in objection to false impressions given in the
many newspaper obituary accounts. With her permission I am reprinting it.
This is about Bill Sidis, who died Monday. His
numerous friends do not like the false newspaper picture of him as a pauper and
anti-social recluse. Bill Sidis held a clerical position until two weeks ago.
For two weeks he had received unemployment compensation. the first time in his
life. Today he was to start on a new job for which he had already been hired.
Bill Sidis paid his way; he was no burden on society.
Sidis had plenty of loyal friends. All of them found his ideas
stimulating and his personality likeable. Very few people know as much about the
Indian background of our social customs as he. His manuscript study of it is
worthy textbook material and very readable. He knew dozens of stories from
Boston's history and told them with relish. He recently submitted a plan for
But William Sidis had one great cause—the
right of an individual in this country to follow his chosen way of life. He had
never been able to do this for himself, first because his father made him an
example for psychological theories; then because the public, through newspaper
articles, insisted that he was a "genius," abnormal and erratic.
Whenever Sidis saw interference by individuals
or governments, with anyone's "life, liberty and the pursuit of
happiness," he fought it any way he could. He won a long legal fight
against a nationally known publication on the ground that it had invaded his
privacy. Bill Sidis was a quiet man who enjoyed the normal things of life. His
friends respected him and enjoyed his company. I am glad to have been one of his
It is quite
obvious from this evidence of Bill Sidis' enjoyment of wholesome friendships to
his very last days that his genius did make of him the "queer, friendless
personality" that is too often erroneously thought to be characteristic of
The intellect of
William Sidis did not "burn out." What the journalists did not report,
and perhaps did not know, was that during all the years of his obscure
employments he was writing original treatises on history, government, economics
and political affairs. In a visit to his mother's home I was permitted to see
the contents of a trunkful of original manuscript material that Bill Sidis
composed during the time he was supposed to be "reluctant to think." And in his
obscure mechanical jobs, the "adding machines" that the newspapers described him
to be working in later life were comptometers. Moreover, he would work two of
them at a time, one with his left hand and one with his right, using his elbows
for the space bar. That's not all. Supplied with a full share work that was
supposed to consume an eight hour day, he would finish all of it within one
hour. If that's an example of "burned out genius, then I'll. . .
Nor was Bill Sidis
lacking in a sense of humor Many pungent witticisms are to be found in his
manuscripts. In book form they will draw many a chuckle from the reader when
published. This is a characteristic sample: "Famous author, foreign
correspondent and noted commentator: a fellow with a sponsor."
There was no
lessening of William Sidis' mental acuity. Helena Sidis told me that a few years
before his death, her brother Bill took an intelligence test with a
psychologist. His score was the very highest that had ever been obtained. In
terms of I.Q., the psychologist related that the figure would be between 250