If I asked you to name the smartest person who ever lived, you might say Albert Einstein, Leonardo da Vinci, or someone like Stephen Hawking. I’m pretty sure you wouldn’t know a guy called William James Sidis, and yet, this man had an estimated IQ of 250 to 300.
The Tragic Story of William James Sidis
William James Sidis was a mathematical genius. With an IQ of 250 to 300, he was described by the Washington Post as a ‘boy wonder’. He read the New York Times at 18 months, wrote French poetry at 5 years old, and spoke 8 languages at 6 years old.
At 9 years old, he passed the entry exam at Harvard University. Aged 11, he lectured at Harvard at the Mathematical Club. He graduated sum Laude 5 years later.
But William never made a success of his incredible intellect. He died, a penniless recluse, at the age of 46. What happened to him, and why didn’t he use his phenomenally high IQ?
Here is the life story of William James Sidis.
The Influence of William James Sidis’ Parents
William James Sidis (pronounced Sy-dis) was born in 1898 in Manhattan, New York. His parents, Boris and Sarah, were Jewish immigrants who had fled the pogroms in Ukraine in the 1880s.
His parents were equally intelligent and ambitious. His father attained his Bachelor’s and Master’s degree from Harvard in only three years. He went on to become a psychiatrist, specialising in abnormal psychology.
His mother was just as impressive. She was one of the first women to attend medical school at Boston University, where she graduated as a doctor.
To understand William, we have to examine the intentions of his parents. His parents were poor Russian immigrants, but within 10 years, Boris had attained a B.A, an M.A, and a Ph.D. in psychology. Sarah had her M.D in medicine.
His parents wanted to prove that if parents were swift enough and used the right methods, children could unlock their potential. In a way, William was their guinea pig.
Rather than nurture him with love, reassurance, and warmth, they focused on his intellectual side, and the publicity. His parents decided that when William was 5 months old, he should be treated as an adult.
He sat at the dining table and was included in all manner of adult talk, learning to use cutlery to feed himself. His parents were always around to answer his questions and encourage his learning. They didn’t need to. William found ways to occupy himself.
William James Sidis – a Child Prodigy at 18 Months Old
William had an IQ of 250 to 300. To give you some idea of just how smart William was, an average IQ is 90 to 109. An IQ score over 140 indicates that you are a genius.
Experts have reverse-engineered Albert Einstein’s IQ – 160, Leonardo da Vinci – 180, Isaac Newton – 190. Stephen Hawking had an IQ of 160. So you can see that William James Sidis was an exceptional individual.
At 18 months old, William could read the New York Times. At 3, he was typing out letters to Macy’s to order toys for himself. Boris gave William calendars at the age of 5. Shortly afterwards, William could calculate the day on which any date fell during the past ten thousand years.
By the age of 6, he had taught himself several languages, including Latin, Hebrew, Greek, Russian, Turkish, Armenian, French, and German. He could read Plato in original Greek at age 5. He was writing French poetry and had written a novel and a constitution for a utopia.
However, he was becoming isolated within his family. William lived in his little world. While his intellectual needs were being fed, his emotional ones were not considered.
William also had press intrusion to deal with. He was frequently featured on the covers of high-profile magazines. He grew up in the media spotlight. When he did attend school, it became a media circus. Everyone wanted to know about this boy genius.
But William suffered because he didn’t want the attention. William loved rules and routine. He did not cope with deviations from his routines. At school, he had no concept of social interaction or etiquette. If he liked the subject, he could not control his enthusiasm. But if he didn’t, he would sulk and cover his ears.
William finished seven years of schoolwork in 6 months. However, he couldn’t make friends and was becoming a loner.
Between the ages of 6 and 8, William wrote several books, including studies in astronomy and anatomy. He also wrote one about the grammar for the language he invented called Vendergood.
At 8 years old, William created a new table of logarithms, which used 12 as its base instead of 10.
Set the Record for the Youngest Person to Enter Harvard University
Even though William had passed the entrance exam to Harvard at age 9, the university would not let him attend because of his age. However, after intense lobbying by Boris, he was accepted at this young age and admitted as a ‘special student’. However, he was not allowed to attend classes until he was 11 years old.
Rather than enter Harvard quietly and continue with his studies, Boris courted the press, and scrutinise what they did. Boris orchestrated what some saw as nothing but a publicity stunt. At 11 years old, William delivered a lecture on ‘Four-Dimensional Bodies’ to the Mathematical Club in January 1910.
William did indeed present his lecture. One evening in January, around 100 esteemed mathematics professors and advanced students crowded into a lecture hall in Cambridge, Massachusetts.
A shy boy of 11, dressed in velvet bloomers, stood up at the lectern, and awkwardly addressed the audience. He was quiet at first, but then, as he warmed to his subject, his confidence grew.
The subject material was incomprehensible to the waiting press, and most of the invited mathematical professors.
But afterwards, those who managed to understand it declared him to be the next great contributor to the field of mathematics. Once again, the press splashed his face across front-pages, with reporters predicting a bright future for this talented boy.
William graduated cum laude from Harvard 5 years after this lecture. However, his days at Harvard had not been pleasant. His eccentric ways made him a target for bullies.
Sidis biographer Amy Wallace said:
“He had been made a laughing stock at Harvard. He admitted he had never kissed a girl. He was teased and chased, and it was just humiliating. And all he wanted was to be away from academia [and] be a regular working man.”
The press clamoured for an interview with the child genius, and they got their soundbite. William declared:
“I want to live the perfect life. The only way to live the perfect life is to live it in seclusion. I have always hated crowds.”
William wanted to live a private life, but even so, he took a job teaching maths at Rice Institute in Houston, Texas. The problem was, he was so much younger than his students, and they did not take him seriously.
The Reclusive Years of William James Sidis
After that, William shunned public life, moving from one menial job to another. He managed to stay out of the public eye. But once he was recognised, he would quit and seek employment elsewhere.
He often took on basic accounting work. However, he would complain if someone discovered his identity.
“The very sight of a mathematical formula makes me physically ill. All I want to do is run an adding machine, but they won’t let me alone.” William James Sidis
William neglected his mathematical talents and retreated from public life. He hid away, preferring his own company. By the age of 20, he had become a recluse.
At age 39, William lived in a rundown, Boston rooming house. He worked as an adding machine operator and kept himself to himself. He occupied his time by writing novels under assumed names and collecting streetcar transfer tickets.
Finally, the press caught up with him. In 1937, the New York Post sent an undercover female reporter to befriend the reclusive genius. But the article, titled ‘Boy Brain Prodigy of 1909 Now $23-a-Week Adding Machine Clerk’, was less than flattering.
It portrayed William as a failure who had not lived up to his early childhood promise.
William was furious and decided to come out of hiding, into the spotlight once more. He sued the New York Post for libel in what is now considered the first privacy lawsuit.
William was a public figure and as such, had waived his rights to private life. After losing his libel case, William sank back into obscurity.
In 1944, he was found dead by his landlady, at age 46, of a cerebral haemorrhage. The mathematical genius was alone and penniless.
The case of William James Sidis raises a few issues, even today. Should children be subject to intense pressure at such an early age? Do public figures have a right to a private life?
Who knows what contribution William could have made if he had just be left alone?
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This Post Has 16 Comments
Janey, Thank you again for another really great story. I do enjoy your work. Easy to read, and very enlightening. Carol
Thanks for the story. A gentle reminder about the sometimes forgotten “important” things in life
Thank you for an interesting and insightful story. Many regards. Kathleen
Thank you for this entertaining story of Sdis
an amazing but tragic story of a wasted talent who could have achieved so much
“Who knows what contribution William could have made if he had just be left alone?”
How about had he been socialized as a child? Being “left alone” is a symptom, not a cause. He wanted a life that was denied to him because it was not compatible with society and he desired that life because his parents allowed his mind to flourish be allowed his sense of person to wither.
Somebody should have smacked the successful parents for “designing” this prodigy with ulterior motives.
Judaism is a wonderful faith. Unfortunately, if there are no inspirational people to remind him, then it is a life of cold numbers and concrete parallelograms.
Thank you for this article. Did he lack the loving and emotionally nurturing parents that may have produced a more socially adaptable child and adult, undoubtedly. Did being bullied contribute to Sidis being introverted and alone? With his IQ his life’s experiences are so beyond even the “normal geniuses” among us to analyze. Many of the normal and lower IQ range overcome and thrive. If only he could have loved himself and his gifts where would humanity be today?
IQ and intelligence are not the same things.
In the time continum, and matters of quantum physics, “if he had just [been] left alone?” would also be an appropriate summing up. Because time happens all at once, correct?
Its a tragic story but it leaves behind a powerful message that one should always mind your own business and not gossip and put your nose where someone else’s business is.
People could achieve so much if they are not pressured or forced.
Socialising ‘normal’ geniuses is essential but this guy was extreme e.g. professors couldn’t understand his first lecture at 11!! There is a belief that people with an IQ gap of more than 30 points can’t communicate effectively anyway, so Sidis was probably correct that he should have been left alone (and protected from media!). Even a small chance of him cracking fusion technology justifies the sacrifice!
The thing is hes nothing like these people who are celebrities nowadays, your last point annoyed me ” do public figures have a right to a private life” but the case of willliam and other celebrities are so different. these other celebrities ahd a choice , they cntinue to release content promoting their fame but william stated he does not like the spotlight and they would follow him everywhere forcing fame onto him. these are not comparable in the slightest.
That public figure should’ve been challenged since it was against his will before he was an adult.
This story illustrates that achievement, alone, is not a measure of a successful and full life. Especially, in the education of children, the “whole child” should be considered. Too much emphasis on testing and academic achievement, is a real concern in today’s education system.