Reining in the Prodigy

There seems no question that William James Sidis was a genius.

Born in New York City in 1898, his parents, Boris and Sarah, were Russian immigrants and intellectuals who had fled to the U.S. to escape persecution.  Boris earned his M.D. and Ph.D. degrees at Harvard University and taught psychology there. He was a close friend of William James who was his son's godfather (William was also named for him).   Sarah was an M.D. whose family fled the Russian pogroms ten years before William's birth though she gave up her medical career to be a full-time mother to her son (and later daughter).  Boris and Sarah both held radical notions concerning early child education (radical for the time anyway) and encouraged William to learn without using the discipline that characterized education in that era.

The results were nothing less than spectacular: William could read the New York Times by the age of 18 months and taught himself eight languages by the time he was eight (he also invented a new language and a new logarithm table). At the age of 11, he entered Harvard as part of an experimental program along with other promising prodigies including Norbert Wiener and Buckminster Fuller.   William excelled in higher mathematics and language and a brilliant future was predicted for him.  Intelligence testing was still in its infancy (and Boris dismissed IQ tests as "pedantic and misleading") but later estimates would put William's IQ in the 250 to 300 range. He graduated with a Bachelor of Arts Degree with full honours at the age of 16.

And then things went downhill from there...

William's lifelong feud with the press began with an interview before graduation in which he stated that he planned to remain celibate and that women "did not appeal to him". Publicity over the 220px-William_James_Sidis_1914[1]interview may have been the cause of his being threatened by a gang of Harvard students and which led to his leaving Harvard to go to Rice University in Texas.   After some time, he abandoned mathematics and enrolled in Harvard Law School in 1916.  Willliam withdrew three years later without finishing and became involved in political causes including being a conscientious objector to the World War I draft.

His arrest in 1919 for participating in a socialist rally that turned violent caused him to be sentenced to 18 months in prison for rioting and assault (there is some question concerning the legitimacy of the charges).  His father made a special arrangement with the District Attorney to keep William out of prison by having him sent to his private sanatorium instead.  This seemed to be an especially dark time in William's life and he never forgave his parents for "kidnapping" him and holding him against his will for more than a year.   He accused them of subjecting him to various forms of "mental torture" including scolding and nagging for hours at a time.  He was also frequently threatened with transfer to a regular mental hospital where his prospects for an eventual release would be slim.

William eventually managed to escape in 1921 but he never reconciled with his parents.  His experience in the sanatorium had left him "scared of his own shadow" and his parents' efforts to have him returned to their care made him extremely paranoid about his privacy and any intrusions into his life. He spent the rest of his life apparently drifting between menial jobs although he continued to publish a range of eclectic works (mostly under pseudonyms) that still attract a cult following. He especially resented intrusions into his life by the press (who regularly presented him as being an unhappy and burned-out product of his forced acceleration) and even sued one paper for what he considered to be a libelous article about him that caused "grievous mental anguish and humiliation."   The stress from the lawsuit may have contributed to his death from a cerebral hemorrhage in 1944.

So, what do we make of William Sidis? Despite his early death and failure to live up to his early potential, his case is still followed in educational circles. Would things have turned out differently had his parents not intervened in his jail sentence as they did?   Some questions can't be answered.


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