A SHORT BIO OF W. J. SIDIS
by Adam Alonzi
William James Sidis was born on April 1, 1898. He would go on to become the greatest child prodigy in recorded history. Sidis's childhood feats are to this day rivaled only by those of Goethe and John Stuart Mill. His story will never cease to fascinate those who wish to understand the upper limits of human potential; his life will never cease to instruct those who wish to understand genius. Yet, sadly, his life is shrouded in falsehood, and to this day, he remains more myth than man. He is as much a victim of his own genius as he is of the attention it attracted. He is as much a victim of his own emotional immaturity as he is of the immaturity of the society in which he came of age.
Hounded by journalists since he was a child, misrepresented or openly lied about in the newspapers of the time, expected to perform on command like a zoo animal, Sidis's childhood was considerably different from his predecessors or his contemporaries. In ways his circumstances were better than those of his fellow prodigies, in others, they were much worse.
William came from clever stock. His grandfather, Moses, was a successful merchant who had read Darwin and Thomas Huxley. His father Boris received instruction from private tutors until he was 17; he retained a lifelong passion for learning that neither poverty nor persecution could destroy. As a result of witnessing the the atrocities of Tsarist Russia, he developed lifelong hatred for authority, organized religion and tyranny.
For teaching peasants without the permission of the Russian government Boris Sidis was sentenced to a prison cell which was not even large enough for him to fully recline. It was there, alone with his thoughts, that he learned how to think. He was released after two years on the conditions that he no longer read or teach others how to read. Although he was under surveillance, Boris planned his escape. A surge of anti-Semitism had taken hold in Russia; government sanctioned assaults on Jews and their businesses were commonplace, murder was not only condoned, but encouraged; Boris realized he had no future in such a bigoted and backwards nation.
When he arrived he found that the streets of New York were not paved with gold. Although it is difficult to imagine a fiercely independent thinker like Boris from believing in these rumors, it is likely that he was not at all prepared for what he saw. New York's Lower East Side was teeming with recent arrivals who, like Boris, were frantically trying to find food, shelter and work. Most of them did not speak English. The millions of hopeful arrivals found the city resembled Bombay more than it did the paradise they carried with them across the Atlantic. Boris found menial employment. He would work for one week and then spend his days at the Boston library for two. Boris's seemingly impractical schedule served him well. Subsisting on hearty black bread and herring, Boris was determined to become a medical doctor.
A young woman shared his ambition. Sarah, who would later become Boris's wife, was also a Russian expatriate. Her dream was even more incredible than her husband's. She began taking English lessons from Boris, who, like his son, had a talent for languages. Their shared respect for learning, and Sarah's enormous respect for Boris, set the foundation for a long and usually happy marriage. Boris's opposition to the status quo manifested itself in several ways: he was an atheist, and had been since he was a child; later on he would become a rabid opponent of Freudian psychoanalysis; and, lastly, and perhaps most ferociously, he hated all traditional forms of pedagogy and education.
Of the three, his religious beliefs alienated him the least from the mainstream. Boris was dismissive of rote memorization, diplomas and intelligence tests, the last of which he called “silly, pedantic and grossly misleading.” While his combativeness won him no friends, his brilliance certainly did. William James, the eminent American psychologist and philosopher, once asked Sarah, “if they call me a genius, what superlative have they reserved for your husband?”
Sarah needed a high school diploma before she could apply to college. She lamented that she needed to learn 6 years of math in three weeks for her exams. Unfazed by the deadline, Boris taught her the first three proofs from The Elements. The rest, he said, she should be able to deduce from what he had given her. Merely presenting her with all the proofs would teach her nothing, he reasoned. She passed the exam and began attending Boston University.
He would later have spectacular success using this method with William. To pay her way through college she worked as a nurse at night before attending classes in the morning. Boris eventually received a scholarship from the JP Morgan fund. Although she could practice medicine, Sarah never became a doctor. She chose instead to be a doting parent to William, or Billy, as she called him. She and Boris agreed, contrary to prevailing opinions of the time, that parental involvement, even in infancy, is crucial to raising healthy, happy well-adjusted children. Without attention and stimulation, William would not live up to the vision she and her husband had for him.
Sidis, like Mill, was groomed for greatness from the beginning. It reminds one of what Orson Welles said of his own childhood: "the word genius was whispered into my ear, it was the first thing I ever heard while I was still mewling in my crib." With blocks Boris would spell out words for William. At 8 months William learned how feed himself; at 18 months he was reading the New York Times and knew how to spell many English words. It was believed that Boris pushed his son incessantly, but nothing was farther from the truth. Later in life wrote Sarah Sidis put the method in writing:
* Avoid punishment in all ways possible—it is the first cause of fear.
· Try not to say “Don’t.” Instead, explain why what you say is so.
· Awaken curiosity—it is the key to learning.
· Never fail to answer and never put off your child’s questions.
· Never force your child to learn nor judge his ability to learn by adult standards.
· Implant ideas at bedtime, just before sleep. Suggestions made then will make a solid impression.
· Never lie to your child or use evasions.
· Refrain from showing him off.
While they did follow all of their other guidelines, they unfortunately had not formulated, or did not follow, the last until it was too late. He learned Greek at 4. In the same year he taught himself Latin as a birthday present to his father.
At 6 he learned Aristotelian logic, which he wished he had learned earlier because it would have been “helpful to his studies.” Between the ages of four and eight he wrote four books: two of which were on astronomy and anatomy. Another contained the grammar for a language called Vendergood. This new language, which drew from Greek, Latin, German and French, contained grammatical cases William himself invented. It would have been a respectable achievement for a professor of linguistics, but it came from the mind of an 8 year old boy.
In fact, when he was 6, the only area in which he showed a deficiency was mathematics. Boris once again applied his method; he would discuss math around Sidis and 'suggest' its importance in everyday life, then play games with him that involved arithmetic and quantitative reasoning. Soon enough Sidis was devouring mathematics as he had devoured language.
He could calculate enormous figures in his head and could figure out the day on which any given date in history occurred. There are other savants with these abilities, however, their general intelligence ranged from average to imbecilic. Sidis had the savant-like abilities to memorize and calculate, as well as a genuine grasp of the principles behind the material he memorized. Around the age of 8 he created a base twelve logarithm table. Nevertheless, this remarkable youth had to attend the first grade with all of the other six year olds in Boston—he was given an examination to make sure he knew his letters. As one would expect, he passed.
He completed grade school and high school quickly and, barring a few conflicts with his teachers and classmates, without much trouble. His teachers complained he had difficulty maintaining his focus. Like many other bright children before and after him, Sidis found the work uninteresting because he already knew it.
Norbert Wiener, a child prodigy in his own right and the father of cybernetics, attended Harvard at the same time as Sidis, would later urge Americans to emulate European models of education where “there is much less pressure on the bright youngsters to keep in lockstep with the average and below-average student, who is the darling our American educational system.” Had these words come at an earlier time, and had they been heeded, Sidis's life may have gone in a different direction. At 9 he was ready to go to Harvard, but they would not have him. Sidis spent the next two years checking Einstein's theories for errors and mastering foreign languages. At 11 years of age he was finally admitted to Harvard.
A professor of mathematics there stated that only one other child prodigy resembled Sidis: Karl Fredrick Gauss. Boris was always dismissive of social norms and customs and, unfortunately, did not take the time to teach Sidis manners or etiquette. He also, like James Mill, did not instruct his son in physical culture.
John Stuart Mill would later say, “I never was a boy” and blame his father for his physical awkwardness. Without playmates or play, Mill never experienced the joys of boyhood. Similarly, Sidis never participated in athletics because Boris detested sports. He believed they were barbaric and likened them to the gladiatorial games of ancient Rome. Yet, he was not at all an elitist. Boris firmly believed that every normal child could become a genius. He wrote, “like savages we are afraid of genius, especially when it is manifested as 'precocity in children.'”
At Harvard William did not find an institution that treasured higher learning and respected his intellect. Instead, he found another place where his talents would be put on display and he would be shunned as a misfit. William was never noted for his social graces. One teacher fiercely chastised him because he spent a portion of the class trying to balance his hat on his head. It appeared that Harvard's curriculum did not challenge him either.
This may be why he received a few B's and C's during his time at the university. His lecture on the fourth dimension and the publication Boris's book, Philistine and Genius, drew more media attention to William than ever before. He was, unfortunately, not equipped to handle it. As his mother later recollected: “Boris pulled down upon his stout head, and upon Billy who was so very young, the anger that comes from hurt pride. Educators, psychologists, editorial writers, and newspaper readers were furious with him. And their fury was a factor in Billy’s life upon which we had not counted.” This, along with the intense anti-Semitism on the Harvard campus and his social ineptitude, made his college years extremely difficult.
To make matters worse, a case of the flu gave birth to rumors about a nervous breakdown. Amy Wallace writes: “thought to be subject to fits of insanity and recurrent nervous breakdowns, he was horribly ostracized. Not surprisingly, he became the butt of practical jokes. Radcliff girls pretended to flirt with him, and the hapless genius would brag about it to his classmates. A few practical jokers even composed fake love letters proposing marriage; he never caught on to the gag.“
One article claimed his eyesight was failing and that he was deathly ill as a result of over-study. Sidis was not ill, never wore glasses in his life and did not, as he would later say, ever study. Boris did not believe in studying, he believed in play. Cramming does help, one learns nothing by doing it. He did not agree with John Dewey experiential model of education either. His wife once remarked that she didn't believe children needed to jump off a cliff to learn not to do so. The story was not the first flawed account of Sidis, nor was it the last. This was the heyday of Yellow Journalism; an era ruled by media moguls like Joseph Pulitzer and William Randolph Hearst. Boris's advice to William was not helpful; Billy did not have the tact to turn the tables on the reporters.
Although his undergraduate years were
unpleasant, William' entered Harvard graduate school to study law. However, a
group of boys threatened to beat him up. This led to him finding a position at
Rice University in Texas.
Like Tesla, Kant, Da Vinci, Pythagoras, Paul Erdos, Buddha and Plato, Sidis chose to be celibate. He made a solemn oath to never marry underneath a tree. He carried the picture of the tree with him as a reminder. He drew up a personal constitution for himself, one which he would try to live within for the rest of his life. The newspapers had a field day with this information. The public, which always thought him odd, now considered him a freak. He was not a misanthrope like Newton, nor did he have the ascetic inclinations of all the others listed. He was, according to his friends, a kind and genial man who looked down upon no one.
Sidis, however, did not completely lack a sense of visceral beauty. The object of his affection was his fellow activist, Martha Foley. She was not a pretty woman, but she was bright and passionate about the same issues as William. She would later go on to found Story magazine, which introduced J.D. Salinger, Tennessee Williams and Richard Wright to America. His activities during the war had attracted unwanted attention to him, and had it not been for his parents and their contacts, he may have ended up jailed like other pacifists and socialists.
He wrote a book on physics entitled The Animate and the Inanimate. This captivating work on theoretical physics attracted no public attention. His antics in Texas had landed him in all the major papers of the day, but no one mentioned his scholarly paper on the Second Law of Thermodynamics. It is a highly speculative work, but that was not why it received so little notice. Sidis's youthful celebrity had marked him forever as an eccentric, and apparent lack of achievements made the general public believe the boy had “burned out.” This fueled the belief in one of the public's most cherished myths about child prodigies.
Abraham Sperling wrote:
Returning to 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. 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 renown.
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." Sarahh 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.
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 pieces on history, government, economics and political affairs. In a visit to his mother's home I was permitted to see the contents of a trunk full of original manuscript material that Bill Sidis composed during the time he was supposed to be "reluctant to think."
The life of William James Sidis vividly portrays what psychology teaches about intellectual genius. It is first born and then developed. The prowess appears at an early age. It does not expire any sooner than musical or artistic talent. Mental derangement is not characteristic of genius. Unrealistic publicity in connection with a youthful person of very superior capacity should be avoided. The feeling of being different or queer should be guarded against. The precocious child it neither to be squelched in his thirst for learning nor to be zealously prodded. Allow the child to be the guide of his guardian. To develop normally, a youthful prodigy should have opportunities for wholesome emotional and social contacts with a friendly world.”
Sarah Sidis once admitted that his extraordinary accomplishments were not the result of Boris's instruction; Billy Sidis had been born a genius. Other prodigies show us that genius is born, not made. Gauss's father was a bricklayer who did not prepare his child for any sort of education. Joel Kupperman, a former quiz kid who could do extremely difficult math problems in his head while in elementary school.
Neither of his parents actively prepared him for this role, yet he could and did. They merely supplied him with whatever books he requested and that was all. Christian Heinrich Heinecken, the Terrible Tot of Lubeck, could speak his mother tongue at 8 months. He read the Pentateuch at age one, and between the ages of two and three, he read the Old and New Testament in Latin. When he was three years old, he was said to have authored A History of Denmark and recited it when visiting the King of Denmark later the same year. He died at age four. No one will ever know what sort of wonders he would have brought into the world.
It is human nature to be jealous, to covet or hate what one does not have or cannot understand. It is in the nature of groups to force talented people to hide their light beneath a bushel. is quite possible there has never been a society made for people like Sidis, Tesla and Da Vinci---nor for the many nameless geniuses whose flames have been extinguished prematurely by eternal rainstorm of mediocrity. What becomes of these men and women? People too humane, too bold, too brilliant for their age; people who are willing and capable of questioning all things, and who often have paid a price for their desire to create and understand.
This is 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.
Sidis 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.
But 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.
Whenever 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.