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Sarah Sidis, M.D.

Unpublished manuscript, 1950


    During the summer that I was seventeen years old I went up to the White Mountains and took a job in a resort hotel as a waitress.

    I had been there but a short time when "Hello," and there he was.

    He said, "I can't sleep, I am an idler, and you work so hard. Please come home." I only stayed a month because he said, "I can't go home without you," but we waited until December to marry.

    "He said he had loved me since I first came as a student to him, and that it always hurt him to take my money. "But I thought that if I did not take it, you wouldn't come back, and I shouldn't see you again."

    He made me several promises. One was almost taken for granted, that I should go to medical school. If that was what I wanted, that was what he wanted for me. Another promise he made me was that he would never make much money.

    "Making money and living the life I want to live don't go together. No man can read and study and think and write deeply and honestly and think about making money. I don't propose to waste this life of mine by concerning myself with money-making. I'll promise you this, we won't have any."

    "Don't ever worry about it," I said. "I can live on very little. I can make you silk shirts out of a 35 cents remnant. I can take care of myself. I'll promise you that a lack of money will never bother us."

    My mother went to Boris, unknown to me. "Look," she said, "Why don't you leave Sarah alone? Why do you bother her? What can you offer her, a penniless student like yourself? Leave her alone, for there are young men who want her in marriage who can bring her a nine, easy life."

    "Let's let Sarah decide that," said Boris gently. He did not mind, and she did not hurt him.

    To me he said, "She does what she thinks is best for you."

    So we worked and saved and I studied Latin and physics for my examinations at the Medical School of Boston University. My Latin I learned with the aid of a pony. My translations were excellent, for I had a good memory, and they made up for a definite weakness in Latin grammar.

    "Why don't you go to Harvard?" I said to Boris.

    At first he scoffed and snorted. "What can they teach me?" he said. "They will enmesh me in scholastic red tape."

    Never was a man allowed more freedom at Harvard than was Boris.

    "You might like it," I said.

    I persuaded him to take examinations at Harvard, and to apply for a scholarship. He never liked to ask for anything of anyone in this world, but I said, "What good is it in being the most brilliant man in the world if you meet only the four walls?"

    He enrolled as a freshman at the same time I enrolled as a freshman in medical school. I had made up my lack of academic credits in pre-medical work by taking examinations, and I was the youngest student in my class. When I enrolled they made me bring my mother and father to swear I was 18, for they said I did not look it. For the first few weeks I still wore my hair down my back in braids, and I then put it up so that I might seem a little older.

      For my tuition I had saved 45 dollars, and at the end of the first semester I went to Dean Talbott and said, "I will not be back for the next semester, because I must work a little more and save a little more."

      "Young lady," he said, "I have been hearing about you from your teachers. You come back, or I shall send a policeman for you. Don't worry about your tuition."

      I was a very simple girl then, but my faculty believed in me. I weighed 105 pounds. Dean Talbott said, Sarah, you must eat a half & pound of butter a day, you are too thin.

      They gave me a scholarship, but all the same, to live and to go to college at the same time took some doing on my part. I worked as a waitress for my lunches in the school lunch room. Then I got work as a nurse for two nights a week, which took care of my other small expenses.

      I got $2 per night for this, but then top round steak was 15 cents and bacon was 12 cents a pound.

      At that time nurses were on 12 hour duty, so it meant that I had to go to classes on Tuesday, stay up all Tuesday night as a nurse, and go to Wednesday classes without any sleep. Perhaps this stint of work is what has convinced me that a great deal of whatever I accomplished in this world is due to sheer physical energy and health.

    For six months I could not save enough to buy a copy of Gray's Anatomy, which cost six dollars. It could be taken out over-night from the Boston public library, and I used to walk two miles each morning to take the book back to the library, and two miles each night to draw it out again.

    My school work was good, but the brightest student in that class of mine was Effie Stevenson. Effie was a wonder then, as she is today. She could do anything. They said she was the smartest woman aver to go to Boston University Medical School. She could turn a horse and buggy on a dime, pitch hay, and make honors on her examinations without ever studying hard.

      Effie was a Perkins, from Berwick, Maine. Hers was an old family, they had come over on the Mayflower, and they were all exceptional people. Anne, her younger sister, was in the same class as Effie and I, and she also became my friend, but Effie was the leader.

    There were 100 acres in their farm at Berwick, and they had hay and fruit, chickens and strawberries. Effie could put on overalls and paint a house, and in the evening put on silk and go dancing, for she was nice-looking and loved to dance.

      Effie was not impressed with my speed in covering elementary and high school work. She took it as a matter of course, for all the children in her family could read when they were two years old.

      "How can that be?" asked her.

      "First," she explained, "we were a family that loved books and learning. Children can learn anything they want to learn, and certainly we wanted to learn to read when we saw that to the grown-ups in our famlly books meant as much as food. The oldest learned, and then the oldest taught the younger ones."

      These talks with Effie laid one of the cornerstones of my edifice of education, when I had my children.

    While I seemed to please my teachers with being a sufficiently able student, Boris was astonishing Harvard. They said they had never known a man like him, and at the end of the year they gave him his BA degree.

      If he was a revelation to Harvard, Harvard professors were a revelation to him, too.

      He found his peers there in James, Royce, Palmer, and Lyons, and he loved them because they were such gentle and kind men.

      We were married at Christmas that year, the year we both entered college. because I was just eighteen, we went down to Providence, R.I., to have the ceremony performed. 

      We rented two rooms in the attic in a house near the hospital, and my cooking was done in a small closet in one of the rooms.

      Effie married a classmate, Arthur Stevenson, when she was in medical school, too. They took rooms in the apartment next to ours near city hospital, and we enjoyed seeing them frequently.

      In those days I was so thin that my friends labelled me The Toothpick. Cream for our coffee did not come until we had been marries for years. We always bought stale bread because it was so much cheaper.

    And yet we entertained enormously. We had wonderful Sunday afternoons in those years, and I still remember that company and that talk in our attic so long gone.

    Students and professors used to come, for conversation and for experiment. It was on those afternoons that Boris conducted much of the psychological research that enabled him to formulate the principles he outlined in his first book, "The Psychology of Suggestion."

    James came. James gave to Boris’s life its definitive slant. First James taught him psychology, and then they taught each other by studying together. They both felt for the rest of their lives that delight in each other's personality and intellect that is friendship at its finest.

    James said to me, "If they call me genius, what superlative have they saved for this husband of yours?"

    But what he liked most was that we were so happy together on our stale bread and black coffee.

    "Pray tell me," he once asked in the phrases and the gentle manner so characteristic of him, "how two people who are so poor can be so happy?"

    Our happiness came from that delicacy, balance, courage and brilliance in Boris that also made him a great psychologist. Besides my devotion to him, I contributed to our marriage my ability and energy in the practical things of the world, so that they never worried him. He liked it that way.

    To the end of his days, he liked to whisper to our friends, "My wife’s a wonder! You don't know the half of what she can do!" Those words warm me today.

    In that luminescent period of Harvard college around the 1890’s, when James was doing his brilliant experimental work in psychology, Boris became one of the giants. A great breath of inspiration swept through the infant science at that time. Charcot, Janet, and Binet in France; Adler, Jung and Freud in Germany and Austria; James, Sidis, Prince, Watson and Dewey in America began to study men's minds and their behavior on the basis of fact and experiment.

    The American psychologists did not start any special school of psychological thought, with new words and rigid and detailed formulae, as did the French and Austrians. It was not in James’ temperament to encourage a camp of followers or to set up an intricate formalised theory to which he demanded absolute adherence.

    Sound and original contributions to the great body of scientific psychological knowledge were the gifts he gave the world and the gifts he admired in the men whom he taught and with whom he worked.

    These men sharpened their wits and learned and laughed in our two attic rooms on many a Sunday afternoon. James came, and rested on the top stair at the first flight before he started the second, for he had heart trouble. Morton Prince, who was then teaching psychiatry at Tufts came. Scores or other students and teachers came.

    They experimented on each other with cards and numbers and squares and patterns to find out just how men react to suggestion. They hypnotized each other. When Boris came to practice psychiatry he never used hypnosis, for he along with those others quickly discovered its dangers. But at that time the Harvard psychologists as well as their European colleagues, were using the tool of hypnosis to explore the subwaking mind.

    One gay afternoon I remember vividly. James and Boris had hypnotized one of the students, and James gave the command to the hypnotized subject, "Behave as Mr. Sidis does."

    Before he could say another word, the student jumped up and went to the little closet that was my kitchen, where I kept the kerosene stove. He carefully lit the stove, and put the kettle on.

    "You will have tea, won’t you? Everybody wants tea, don't they?" he said.

    Everyone roared, for he was Boris to perfection. Boris usually made the tea, weak Russian tea that we drank in glasses. We had no cream or lemon, because we couldn't afford it, but we did have sugar and we told them the story of the Russian peasant tells on himself about sugar in his tea.

    "The Czar," says the peasant, "has a lump of sugar as big as a loaf of bread for his tea. But the peasant buys a lump of sugar, hangs it on a string, and looks at it while he drinks his tea."

    Not only with hypnosis, but also with cards, and colors and numbers did they experiment with the power of suggestion on the waking and the subwaking mind during these attic sessions.

    The subwaking mind was what Boris called that ocean of animal consciousness through which the waking mind flows as the Gulf Stream flows through the Atlantic.

    With his friends he found, as other psychologists of many schools have found, that this subwaking mind was the reservoir of emotions that pull and prod the waking mind into its activities. It was in these first years of our marriage, at our Sunday sessions, that he found experimentally that the subwaking mind is not nearly so amenable to reason as it is to suggestion and that certain laws can be framed that will indicate how it responds to suggestion.

    Most thoughtful people today have come to realize that all effective psychologists must be as much artist as scientist. They must have a perception so delicate and acute that they can follow instantly along the twisting paths of the subwaking mind. They must be able to enter other people’s personalities.

    Boris had the delicacy, the perception and the artistry that that takes. It made him not only a great scientist, but a great teacher and a great man, and it made him a marvelous husband.

    Now that I think back it seems strange even to me that a girl who had been completely ignorant of all the world's learning at 14 years old should find herself five years later thrown [in] with men as brilliant as any there were in America, and enjoy it.

    It is probably because they were so great. They enjoyed above all else the bright, quick play of the mind on life’s important problems, they wanted above all else to clarify what was cloudy. None of them was trying to impress each other, to be pompous or patronizing, or to use the big hard words of the educated ignoramus. That was so because they were great and because they were Bostonians. 

    Münsterberg, with whom Boris had a psychology class, was a brilliant man, but he was German, and had a desire to be heavy and impressive. He did not come to us on Sundays. It was with the old Boston men of the faculty that we found ourselves in sympathy.

    While he was getting his Ph.D. degree, the Russian minister of education, a prince Volcansky, as I remember, visited Boston. James was Boston's unofficial host to the world of the intellect, and he had to have a stag dinner for the prince.

    Because he knew that Boris would be interested, in spite of his political beliefs, James invited Boris and seated him beside the prince.

    "Before the evening was over the Russian was saying earnestly, "Mr. Sidis, you must come back to Russia. We need you and your ideas on education. We can give you a college position, laboratories, all the facilities you need for research. You must let by-gones be by-gones, and come back and help Russia."

    Thank you, no," replied my tactful husband, for I can trust no promise of your government.

    The prince continued to urge him. "Russia is your native land, you belong there. We can give you opportunities to do great work there."

    Had Boris believed his promises, he still would not have been tempted.

    Being married to Boris was a great education, for he discussed everything in the world at the dinner table--he had a tremendous range of interest. He liked to explain. I asked and asked and then I went and looked up more on the subjects that interested me. To the books and the atmosphere of the Boston Public library I owe much.

    History I enjoyed almost from the time I learned to read. The romance of the facts of the other people's lives always had more charm to me than any works of the imagination.

    Also, to the Lowell Institute am I greatly indebted. To me it was one of the great kindnesses of Boston. It had been founded to provide, free, for the people of Boston, lectures by the great men of the world on all branches of human knowledge. The Institute brought Janet to Boston and I attended his lectures on psychology for eight weeks. There I heard James speak beautifully on immortality. Percival Lowell's lectures on astronomy meant a great deal to me.

    I went to these lectures even while I was a student at medical school. I missed them for my five years' exile in New York, and I went often in my later years in Boston.

    It is most interesting to me now, more than 50 years later, many of the cities of the country are realizing and feeding the hunger of grown-ups to learn and to know. Adult education, they call it, but even that rather unattractive label cannot keep people away from all sorts of classes. This generation is learning that the most sustaining pleasure is learning.

    Of his professors at Harvard, Boris was devoted to his professor of ethics, Dr. Palmer. Alice Palmer, his wife, who founded Wellesley and was its first president, was one of the great women of the country at that time. She was one of the simply great, too, but unfortunately I knew her only a year before she died. With Palmer we became to be good friends over the years.

      When Boris died, years and years later, Palmer could not come to the funeral, but he wrote me a letter that opened a little door into an incident of Boris' student days that I had never known.

      It was very characteristic of my husband, and it concerned overcoats, which were always a problem with both of us in our student days.

    I do not remember what happened to the overcoat that the Spinoza-reading tailor had made for him when Dr. Palmer's story took place.

      Dr. Palmer wrote me, though, that one winter both he and James were concerned to find their prize student, Sidis, coming to class scantily protected from Boston's cold winter.

      James said to Boris, "Look, you know that I have a little money of my own, and I do not spend all they pay me at Harvard, so that I have a small fund to help students. Let me loan you $200 and you can repay me without interest when you begin to make money. Get yourself an overcoat."

      Boris became angry. "I don't need any money, and there are students here who do. Also, there are other students who want to come to Harvard who don't because they can't pay the tuition. Loan your money to them. They need it. I don't."

      James told Palmer of this, and Palmer thought. "Ha. James tried to loan him too much. I will make it a smaller amount, and he will take it."

      And he wouldn't take any of my money either!" Dr. Palmer wrote me. He said that he had never met a man so proudly independent, or so little disturbed by lack or the material things that most people consider necessities.

      When we became owners of a millionaire's estate, that had been a summer White House, we still thought that our student days were the happiest of our lives.

      And I found, as a million, million other people have found down through time, that love is the best reason and reward for being a human.

      My student work was creditable, but Harvard did things for Boris that were never done for any other student in its history.

      After his entrance examinations showed his professors what he was and what he knew, they let him take the most advanced courses, and gave him a scholarship. At the end of one year he was given his BA. degree.

      It took no persuasion on my part to get him to go back a second year, for he had found the teachers so simple and so intellectual. He got his master's degree in that second year, with the help of a Korgan fellowship that paid him enough for us to live on.

      In the third year of my student days, he was not enrolled at Harvard, but taught a course in Aristotelian logic for Royce.

      My domestic diplomacy was called into play to get him back for his Ph.D. degree.

      "Red tape! Red tap! Letters! What do they mean!" It took some doing on the part of Royce and James to convince him that three letters tacked onto his name might some day help him do work that he very much wanted to do. They coached me in how to persuade him.

      But his college teachers did not want him to be a college teacher. "I am in a rut," said James. "I teach the same thing over and over again year after year. I have too little time to really study, or really contribute anything to the world. It is a question to me whether my teaching means anything at all to 90 per cent of my students. You mustn't teach, for you can do greater things."

      In February of my senior year in medical school James sent Boris down to New York City, with a letter to Teddy Roosevelt, who was James' friend and admirer.

      Roosevelt had been elected vice president, and had only a few more weeks to act as governor of New York. He talked to Boris for two hours.

      "Look here," Roosevelt said. "I have never met a man like you. I can't let you go back to Boston, because I have only a few more weeks to do things in New York. and we must have you here."

    Associate psychologist and psychopathologist of the New York state hospitals for the insane was the position Roosevelt gave Boris to keep him in New York.

      For the first time in our four years of marriage we were separated for a few months, for I stayed in Boston to graduate from medical school that June.

      The faculty wanted Boris to submit a thesis for his Ph.D. degree. "Thesis, bah!" said that one. "They know what I can do, and whether I should have their degree."

      Then the faculty wanted him to come back to Harvard for an oral examination.

      "That I'll not do!" said this wild Russian.

      I went to Royce and said, "What shall I do with him. He won't submit a thesis, he won't come back for an oral examination!"

     "I will meet with the faculty and discuss it," said Royce.

      Harvard mailed Boris his Ph.D. degree in June. James said they didn't do as much for him.


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