Can you name the brightest person of all time? Perhaps Albert Einstein or Leonardo da Vinci. Maybe Isaac Newton or John Stuart Mill. These notables
are certainly contenders, but there was one man who may have outshone them all. You have probably never heard of William James Sidis.
At six William was able to calculate on what day of the week any date would fall. One reporter was amazed to discover that he could not only quote
facts from books, but also give the numbers of the pages on which those facts could be verified. He enjoyed star-gazing and map-making, and began
collecting 'streetcar transfers', a hobby which became a life-long obsession and on which he later wrote what may be the most boring book ever
He sped through grade school, completing all seven grades in seven months, though he was not so good at maths to begin with. He took an interest at
seven and even developed a set of logarithms in base twelve. He devised his own speed-reading system, wrote four books between the ages of six and
eight and invented a new Esperanto-like language. By the time he was eight William had passed the Harvard Medical School anatomy examination and the
entrance exam for the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
In high school he took six weeks to complete the four year curriculum and then worked for another six weeks as a teaching assistant. Before officially
studying physics he was helping senior students with their assignments.
Withdrawn from the high school after three months William stayed at home mastering advanced mathematics. He read Einstein and may have corresponded
with the great man. At eleven he enrolled as a 'special student' at Harvard and at twelve delivered a lecture on 'four-dimensional bodies' to the
Harvard Mathematical Club. By now the press was onto him and reported a severe bout of flu as a nervous breakdown. His interests were wide and
included politics, mathematics, languages, astronomy, anatomy and transport systems. He wrote a political constitution for a utopian society and
ordered his personal life with a set of 154 rules, which included celibacy.
A cousin said of him that he never played games but was always reading. He was "a genius, and to be a genius you have to do a lot of work". This
seriousness and brilliance, together with social ineptitude, led to persecution at Harvard, bolstered by strong anti-semitic feeling. His grades were
not brilliant and he graduated 'cum laude' rather than 'magna cum laude', thus incurring the wrath of his mother.
In 1915 he secured a position as professor of mathematics at the Rice Institute where he was surrounded by brilliant minds. He was teased and reduced
to ineffectiveness by students older than him and increasingly became a social misfit. He joined the socialist party, strongly expressed pacifist
views and was asked to leave after eight months.
William James Sidis (April 1, 1898–July 17, 1944) was an eccentric genius and child prodigy, famous in the United States of America in the early
20th century but now virtually unknown.
Sidis was born to Jewish Russian immigrant parents, Boris Sidis and Sarah Sidis neé Mandelbaum. Boris emigrated in 1887 to escape political
prosecution for breaking the Czarist laws against teaching peasants to read, while Sarah's family fled the pogroms about 1889. William's parents
were considered geniuses in their own right. Boris Sidis taught psychology at Harvard University, treated patients as a psychologist and psychiatrist,
and wrote many books. Sarah was a medical doctor who had received no formal education before medical school, except for tutoring by Boris. She gave up
her own medical career to assist in William's education. William was named for a friend and colleague of Boris, William James.
Billy's parents believed in nurturing a precocious and fearless love of knowledge, as opposed to disciplinary punishment, an outrageous idea in the
early 20th century for which they received much criticism. However, consequently young William could read at 18 months (hyperlexia), taught himself
Latin at 2, Greek at 3, had written a treatise on anatomy at 4, wrote four books and knew eight languages (English, Latin, Greek, Russian, Hebrew,
French, German and Vendergood, his own invention) before his eighth birthday, and had given a lecture on four dimensional bodies to an entire
auditorium of mathematicians at Harvard at the age of 11. He was said to eventually become the foremost mathematician of the 20th century. His IQ was
estimated at between 250 and 300 by psychometrician Abraham Sterling, and he entered Harvard at the age of 11 as a special student in a program
designed to enroll gifted young individuals early. The university had refused to let him apply at age eight. He was the youngest and most prominent of
this amazing group of prodigies who studied at Harvard in 1909, which included Norbert Wiener, the father of cybernetics, Richard Buckminster Fuller
and composer Roger Sessions.
This is proof that not all geniuses live up to their potential.
For a time he worked as a laboratory assistant but resigned in disgust upon discovering that he was working to a military agenda. He was imprisoned
for being prominent in a protest march that turned into a riot and was rescued from eighteen months hard-labour by his father. William later
considered this redemption to be an 'abduction'.
In 1925 his book 'The Animate and the Inanimate' was published. This was a scientific work in which William predicted black holes years before
anyone else. The work was totally ignored and William never again published a book in his own name.
'Escaping' from his parents he worked first as a Russian interpreter and then in a number of positions operating adding machines for low wages.
Always he hid his genius from his employer and left when it was discovered. The press continued to hound him and he objected to those who felt that he
owed them a debt just because he was a genius. His isolation and eccentricity increased.
His high intelligence cannot be doubted. To give one last example, he was fond of completing crosswords without writing the answers down until he had
them all. Abraham Sterling, director of New York City's Aptitude Testing Institute, said that "he easily had an I.Q. between 250 and 300. I have
never heard of the existence of anybody with such an I.Q. I would honestly say that he was the most prodigious intellect of our entire
At the age of 46 William James Sidis, possibly the world's greatest mind ever, suffered a serious stroke and died. History hardly remembers him.
What went wrong? Why did this monster mind apparently achieve so little? The potential was there. Reading through the details of William's life (in
Amy Wallace's book, 'The Prodigy', published by Macmillan) a few things become very clear. William was a reluctant genius. In his early years he
delighted in his gifts and abilities, but he lived in a goldfish bowl with the world watching his every move. His father made the serious mistake of
setting him on a pedestal as an example of how children should be educated, attributing his high I.Q. to education. The critics were there, many just
waiting for him to fail. The press love to find fault with those in the public eye; it sells newspapers. Princess Diana was a recent victim of the
tyranny of the press, but she was not the first and will not be the last. William Sidis was denied privacy and the freedom to live his life in the way
he wanted and withdrew into his shell. The world was thus denied the potentially huge benefits of a very powerful mind.
But does society have the right to say to the individual "You must perform for us"? William Sidis did his own thing. He used his great mind in his
esoteric streetcar transfer hobby and in the writing of a revisionist history of the American people. We do not tell artists that they must decorate
public buildings so that everyone can benefit from their talents. Nor do we expect composers to dedicate themselves to the most popular styles so that
the greatest number of people will enjoy their work. Genius does not work like that. In fact, genius may be smothered if we attempt to harness and
steer it in a desirable direction. At an individual level most people have experienced 'moments of brilliance' when they have least expected them.
In fact, the harder we try to be clever the less likely we are to excel. Brilliance is not available on prescription.
Should we leave our best minds to develop without intervention? Probably not. Very few of intellectual history's great minds have arrived at
greatness without active encouragement and even some pushing. But it is the height of arrogance to believe that we can produce genius to order. We
should be there for the great minds when they need our support, pushing them oh so gently. And we must protect them from the awful pressures that
genius can incur. Of utmost importance, we must remember that the mind belongs to the individual and not to society (and certainly not to parents and
teachers). There is the risk that our efforts will be in vain, but the risk of suffocating a great mind may be far greater.
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