William James Sidis

From Academic Kids

William James Sidis (1898-1944) was an eccentric genius and child prodigy, famous in the United States of America at the beginning of the 20th century but now virtually unknown.

Sidis was born to Jewish Russian immigrant parents, Boris and Sarah Sidis, who emigrated to escape pogroms. His parents would be considered geniuses in their own right; Boris Sidis taught psychology at Harvard University and wrote many books; Sarah was a medical doctor who gave up her own career to assist in William's education.

His parents sought to make their son a pre-eminent genius using their own teaching methods. William could read at 18 months (hyperlexia) and had written four books before his eighth birthday. His IQ was estimated at between 250 and 300, and he entered Harvard at the age of 11.

He was the most prominent of an amazing group of young prodigies who studied at Harvard in 1909, which included Norbert Wiener, the father of cybernetics, and composer Roger Sessions.

Sidis was socially inept his entire life. Later he vowed to keep from sex and pursuit of women to focus on his intellectual development. Many blame the intense methods his parents used to educate him and his too-early entry into higher education for this. He was very possibly an undiagnosed autistic; autism was first described in children by Leo Kanner in 1942, two years before Sidis died. In an episode striking to those familiar with autistic children, he became hysterical at breakfast time at a resort at which he was staying with his parents. The menu specified the hours at which breakfast was to be served, yet the waiter offered to serve the family 15 minutes before that time. Young William could not deal with this anomaly, and became so agitated that he had to be removed from the dining room.

The difficulties Sidis and other exceptionally young students encountered in dealing with the social structures of a university setting at a very young age helped to shape opinion against allowing precocious children to advance too rapidly through higher education. The debate over gifted education continues today, and Sidis remains a part of the discussion. Cast in modern standards, scholars usually classify Sidis as a profoundly gifted individual. Sidis' experience and the popular perception of him may have influenced 20th-century artistic depictions of ennui-drenched young geniuses in works like J.D. Salinger's Franny and Zooey and Wes Anderson's film The Royal Tenenbaums.

Several subjects on which Sidis wrote or spoke included the fourth dimension, Native American history, cosmology and psychology. Sidis was a railfan who was fascinated with transportation research and streetcar systems (transportation is a popular obsession amongst autistics). He wrote a treatise on streetcar transfers under the pseudonym of "Frank Falupa" that identified means of increasing transit ridership only now gaining general acceptance. In 1930 he was awarded a patent for a rotary perpetual calendar that took into account leap years.

The burdens of intellectual work and his autistic tendencies caused him to flee from the hounding of the media and formal intellectual life. Determined to live a private life, he disavowed his knowledge of mathematics and would only take work running calculating machines or other fairly menial tasks. He devoted himself to his hobby of collecting streetcar transfers.

Sidis died of a cerebral hemorrhage in 1944.

A comment that Aldous Huxley once made about Sir Isaac Newton might equally have been said of Sidis, For the price Newton had to pay for being a supreme intellect was that he was incapable of friendship, love, fatherhood, and many other desirable things. As a man he was a failure; as a monster he was superb.

See also

Further reading

  • Wallace, Amy, The Prodigy: A biography of William James Sidis, America's Greatest Child Prodigy, New York: E.P. Dutton & Co. 1986. ISBN 0525244042

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