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."
The "man 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.
An older 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.
Regardless of 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.
That William 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.
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.
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 post-war Boston.
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.
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 friends.
It is quite obvious
from this evidence of Bill Sidis's enjoyment of wholesome friendships to his very
last days that his genius did not make of him the "queer, friendless personality"
that is too often erroneously thought to be characteristic of geniuses.
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