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Meet William James Sidis: The Smartest Guy Ever?

Long before the "Tiger Mother" phenomenon, around 1910, a man named Boris Sidis was touting his child-rearing methods.

To those who knew of his son, William James Sidis was quite possibly the smartest man who ever lived.

A Child Prodigy

Born in Boston in 1898, William James Sidis made the headlines in the early 20th century as a child prodigy with an amazing intellect.

His IQ was estimated to be 50 to 100 points higher than Albert Einstein's. He could read the New York Times before he was 2. At age 6, his language repertoire included English, Latin, French, German, Russian, Hebrew, Turkish and Armenian. At age 11, he entered Harvard University as one of the youngest students in the school's history.

He became a household name, and he hated it.
Amy Wallace, writer and biographer of William James Sidis

But as an adult, he purposefully faded into the shadows, avoiding the public scrutiny that followed him through his early years.

Sidis biographer Amy Wallace tells Weekends on All Things Considered host Guy Raz that he despised media attention. "He became a household name, and he hated it," she says.

Nurturing The Early Years

Sidis' parents were pretty smart, too. His father, Boris, was a famous psychologist, and his mother, Sarah, was a doctor.

Wallace describes them as pushy and aggressive. "They believed that you could make a genius," Wallace says. His mother spent the family's savings on books, maps and other learning tools to encourage their precocious son.

"One thing that was very unusual about [Sidis] compared to other child prodigies [is that] very few prodigies have multiple abilities," Wallace says. As a young boy, Sidis invented his own language and wrote French poetry, a novel and a constitution for a utopia.

Harvard At 11 Years Old

Sidis was accepted to Harvard at age 9, but the school wanted him to wait until he was 11. Five years later, he graduated cum laude.

His Harvard days, however, were not full of happy memories.

"He had been made a laughing stock at Harvard," Wallace says. "He admitted he had never kissed a girl. He was teased and chased, and it was just humiliating. And all he wanted was to be away from academia [and] be a regular working man."

A Writer In Hiding

After a brief stint as a mathematics professor after graduation, Sidis went into hiding from public scrutiny, moving from city to city, job to job, often using an alias.

All the while, he wrote a number of books, including a 1,200-page history of the United States and a book on streetcar transfer tickets, which he loved to collect. His books were never widely published, and he used at least eight pseudonyms.

"We probably will never know how many books he published under false names," Wallace says.

Recently, an inscribed copy of a book he wrote in 1925 — The Animate and the Inanimate — was sold in London to an anonymous collector for 5,000 pounds — almost $8,000.

Exposed By The New Yorker

Sidis lived successfully out of the limelight until 1937, when the New Yorker magazine sent a female reporter to befriend him and gather information for an article on what had happened to the boy wonder.

According to Wallace, Sidis thought the article's description of him was humiliating and "made him sound crazy." After the article was published, "Sidis decided to come out of the woodwork and out of hiding, and sued the New Yorker," Wallace says.

Sidis argued in court that the magazine had libeled him, and he won. Shortly afterward, in 1944, he died from a brain hemorrhage. He was 46.

Despite his unhappy childhood and the media scrutiny he endured as a child prodigy, Wallace thinks Sidis led a happier life as an adult.

"People who knew him adored him," Wallace says. "So I think he really went from being completely traumatized as a young boy to becoming a happy man."

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Transcript

GUY RAZ, host:

Long before the Tiger Mom phenomenon, a man named Boris Sidis was touting his child-rearing methods back around 1910. His son was William James Sidis. And to those who knew of him, he was quite possibly the smartest man who ever lived.

A few months ago, an inscribed copy of a book Sidis wrote, called "The Animate and the Inanimate," was sold in London to an anonymous collector for almost $8,000. The book is about the existence of black holes. It was written more than half a century before Stephen Hawking wrote about the same topic.

Now, back in 1937, The New Yorker magazine tracked Sidis down and wrote an account of his life.

LIANE HANSEN: One snowy January evening in 1910, about a hundred professors and advanced students of mathematics from Harvard University gathered in a lecture hall in Cambridge, Massachusetts, to listen to a speaker by the name of William James Sidis.

(Soundbite of music)

HANSEN: He had never addressed an audience before, and he was abashed and a little awkward at the start. His listeners had to attend closely, for he spoke in a small voice that did not carry well. The speaker wore black velvet knickers. He was 11 years old.

Ms. AMY WALLACE (Biographer): Probably, his voice hadn't changed, and they were agog.

RAZ: That's Amy Wallace. She wrote a biography about that speaker, William James Sidis. He was presenting a paper called "Four-Dimensional Bodies," explaining complex shapes and concepts most of the audience had never even heard of.

Ms. WALLACE: He staggered the scientific community of Harvard.

RAZ: So how did 11-year-old William James Sidis end up lecturing to Harvard's brightest minds? Amy Wallace says it was probably a combination of nature and nurture.

Ms. WALLACE: Well, they say he has the highest IQ ever.

RAZ: It was thought to be a hundred points higher than Einstein's. Sidis' parents were pretty smart too. His dad, Boris Sidis, was a famous psychologist. His mom was a doctor.

Ms. WALLACE: They believed that you could make a genius.

(Soundbite of music)

RAZ: His mom put books and maps and even a little globe in his nursery. By the time he was 18 months, he could read The New York Times.

Ms. WALLACE: At 4, he was speaking Latin. He was writing a novel. He wrote poetry in French. He wrote a constitution for a utopia, invented his own language.

So one thing that was very unusual about William compared to other child prodigies, very few prodigies have multiple abilities like this.

RAZ: And by the time he was 9?

Ms. WALLACE: By the time he was 9, he was ready for Harvard.

RAZ: But Harvard wanted Sidis to wait until he was 11, which is when he was first unveiled at that Harvard lecture. Five years later, he graduated cum laude at the age of 16.

But during his time at school, Sidis came to despise the attention he got as one of the youngest students in Harvard's history.

Ms. WALLACE: He admitted that he'd never kissed a girl. And he was teased and chased. All he wanted was to get away from academia, be a regular working man.

RAZ: So Sidis went into hiding. He moved from city to city, job to job, often using an alias. But all the while, he wrote.

(Soundbite of music)

RAZ: He wrote a 1,200-page book on the history of the United States. He wrote a book on streetcar transfer tickets, which he loved to collect, and he published his books under at least eight pseudonyms.

Ms. WALLACE: We probably will never know how many books he published under false names.

RAZ: Sidis lived pretty successfully out of the limelight until that article in 1937.

Ms. WALLACE: Finally, when he was 44 years old...

RAZ: He was befriended by a woman in Boston.

Ms. WALLACE: He invited her for a cup of coffee in his apartment, and she queried him about his life.

RAZ: But the woman was sent there by The New Yorker for a profile. It was the same article that described Sidis' Harvard lecture.

HANSEN: (Reading) William James Sidis lives today in a hall bedroom of Boston's shabby South End.

Ms. WALLACE: And it was humiliating. They made fun of him. They made him sound crazy. They accused him of having a nervous breakdown, which he never had. And Sidis decided to come out of the woodwork and out of hiding and sued The New Yorker.

RAZ: He sued The New Yorker for libel, and he won. But after the victory...

Ms. WALLACE: Almost immediately after, that incredible brain exploded. He had a brain hemorrhage, and he died.

RAZ: At the age of 46, William James Sidis died. His many books were never widely published, at least not under his real name. It's the reason many people today have never even heard of him.

Do you think that, were he alive today, he would be diagnosed with a social disorder?

Ms. WALLACE: Well, Sidis would have probably been referred to as having what's known as Asperger's syndrome: very bright about your field but kind of rigid socially. And people who knew him adored him. He was a fantastic friend, a mensch and a wonderful guy. So, you know, I think he really went from being completely traumatized as a young boy to becoming a happy man.

RAZ: That's Amy Wallace. She's a biographer of child prodigy William James Sidis. She spoke to us from her home in Los Angeles. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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