William James Sidis – The Genius That Never Was
Claim to Fame: The polyglot and mathematical genius William James Sidis astounded the world by being admitted to Harvard at age 11. Unfortunately for science, the rest was not history.
When discussing geniuses, William James Sidis is definitely one of the smartest people you’ve never heard about. From being the youngest person at the time to enrol at Harvard University at age 11 in 1909 to an adult life of relative obscurity, Sidis’ story is interwoven with brilliance and unrealised potential. He was a mathematical and linguistic prodigy and also tackled various other subjects but his reclusive nature isolated him from sharing his gifts with the world.
There’s no refuting that Sidis displayed hints of genius from an early age. Born in 1898 to two doctors, Boris and Sarah Sidis, William picked up his parents’ love for knowledge early on. Boris was a celebrated psychologist while Sarah was one of the few women to attain a medical degree in the 19th Century. Under them, William’s upbringing was almost an experiment in nurturing precocity. After already being rejected at Harvard once for being too young at age nine, Sidis set a record at Harvard by becoming the youngest person to enroll at the age of 11. The national exposure he received at this young age may have turned him off from the constant public scrutiny.
Sidis’ life steadily took on a more reclusive pattern after graduating cum laude from Harvard at age 16. He began teaching mathematics at William Marsh Rice University in Texas at 17 but had to withdraw as the strain of teaching students older than he grew too great. His arrest 1919 for participating in a riotous socialist May Day parade marked the end of Sidis’ courtship with public fame
He withdrew from active public life, choosing to spend his days working menial jobs and studying peculiar topics that caught his interest, such as cosmology, anthropology and transportation systems. He published a number of works on his findings, but never received much acclaim as he chose to publish many of them under pseudonyms, wishing to avoid the public glare.
Sidis passed away of cerebral hemorrhage in 1944, without achieving the lofty targets that Boris and Sarah Sidis had intended for their prodigy. Instead, his story became the catalyst for a debate on how to approach educating exceptionally gifted children to avoid them burning out before reaching their full potential.
Between his rejection from Harvard at age nine and his eventual acceptance at 11, Sidis spent two years at Tufts College learning foreign languages and correcting errors in mathematical textbooks.
By the time Sidis was nine, he had mastered eight languages and even created his own, called Vendergood.
Sidis was able to read the New York Times by 18 months of age and by the age of five, he was being featured in the same publication for his stunning achievements.