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Boris Sidis

Biographical Sketches

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Boris Sidis
An Appreciation

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 psychotherapy.
         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 Washington.
              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 to him.




[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 Portsmouth.

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.)"

Note: 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.

[Psychological Bulletin, 1910, 7, 75.]

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(Click to enlarge.)








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 convenience?


Very truly yours,


Quinquennial Catalogue


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 Hospitals.

Director of the, Psychopathic Hospital and Psychopathological Laboratory of the New York Infirmary for Women and Children.

Member of the American Psychological Association.

Secretary of the American Psychopathological Society.

Member of the American Institute of Criminal Law and Criminology.

Editor of the Archives of Neurology and Psychopathology.

Associate Editor of the Journal of Abnormal Psychology.


(In Harvard Alumni Association's Quinquennial Catalogue, 1910.)




Dictionary 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 Psychopathic 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 loyal admirers.

[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. 1923.]

H. S. L.

[Harry S. Linenthal]




See also his Harvard Undergraduate Transcript.