This Day in Jewish History

1944: 'Smartest Man in the World' Dies Very Young and Very Alone

Pushed by his father, William Sidis had written four books by age 8, but those meanies at Harvard wouldn't let him in until he was 11.

Wikimedia Commons

On July 17, 1944, former child prodigy William Sidis died, at age 46.

Sidis had become a celebrity when he entered Harvard College at age 11, and  within a year was lecturing to the university mathematics club on the topic of “four-dimensional properties.” Even if his sister was possibly exaggerating when she reported after his death that Bill Sidis had possessed the highest IQ in the history of intelligence testing, he did have remarkable abilities, which were directed by his parents from a young age into what were intended to be productive intellectual pursuits.

Unfortunately, Sidis reacted badly to the intense public scrutiny he was subjected to. Although he remained intellectually active his entire life, as an adult, he avoided work that was especially challenging, and placed a premium on preserving his anonymity.

A tesseract rotating in four dimensional space (Jason Hise, Wikimedia Commons)

Hyperintelligence and abnormal psychology

William James Sidis (it’s pronounced Sy-dis) was born in New York on April 1, 1898. His Ukrainian-born father, Boris Sidis, had emigrated to the United States in 1887, after two years’ imprisonment in czarist Russia, as punishment for teaching reading to peasants. His mother, the former Sarah Mandelbaum, was also from Russia, and had emigrated with her father in 1889, at age 13, after surviving a pogrom.

Both parents were highly intelligent and ambitious. Boris attained his bachelor’s and master’s degrees from Harvard University in three years. He then attended medical school, becoming a psychiatrist who specialized in abnormal psychology.

He met Sarah in an English class he taught. With his encouragement, Sarah became one of the first women to attend medical school at Boston University.

William was named for the psychologist William James, his father’s friend, and showed signs of being special from early on. He spoke his first word at six months, and was reading the New York Times at a year and a half.

By age three, having taught himself to type, he wrote Macy’s a letter ordering toys, and by eight, he had mastered  Latin, Greek, German, Russian, Hebrew, Turkish, French, Armenian – and also invented his own virtual language, which he called Vendergood.

His grammar for Vendergood was one of four books he wrote between the ages of six and eight; the others included studies of anatomy and astronomy.

All of this he did with the coaching of his father, who was determined to demonstrate that genius could be cultivated in a child.

Boris wanted his son to begin college when he was eight, but Harvard was unwilling to admit him, even as a special student, before he turned 11.

Statue of John Harvard at the university named for him (Jessica Williams, Wikimedia Commons)

The perfect life

When he graduated, in 1914, cum laude, Sidis made the mistake of telling reporters that he intended to live the “perfect life,” which, he said, would mean remaining celibate, as he had no interest in women.

Later, after he had spent a miserable year as a mathematics graduate student and instructor at the Rice Institute (later university), in Houston, and gone through nearly three years at Harvard Law School, only to quit abruptly near graduation, Sidis did fall in love. His choice was a fiery young woman named Martha Foley. The two met when they were both arrested in 1919, during a May Day socialist demonstration.

His friendship with Martha lasted for some years, after the two had moved to New York, but in the end, she married the editor Will Burnett (whom regular readers of this column may recall from yesterday’s entry, about the writing career of J.D. Salinger), with whom she co-founded Story magazine. 

Sidis spent his final years in New York and then Boston, where he worked as a bookkeeper, switching employers whenever someone identified him from his days as a famous child prodigy. (When The New Yorker tracked him down and published a “Where Are They Now?” column about him, he sued unsuccessfully for invasion of privacy.) He wrote a number of books – about streetcar transfers, a subject of special interest for him, about the history of human settlement in the Americas, and about astronomy. 

When he died on this date in 1944, it was of a cerebral hemorrhage, the same thing that had killed his father in 1923, when he was 56.