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William J. Sidis

(1898 - 1944)

William James Sidis was an American child prodigy with exceptional mathematical abilities and a claimed mastery of many languages. After his death, his sister made the unverifiable claim that his IQ was "the very highest that had ever been obtained," but any records of any IQ testing that Sidis actually took have been lost to history. He entered Harvard at age eleven and, as an adult, was claimed to be conversant in over forty languages and dialects. It was later acknowledged, however, that some of the claims made were exaggerations, with a researcher stating "I have been researching the veracity of primary sources of various subjects for about twenty-eight years, and never before have I found a topic so satiated with lies, myths, half-truths, exaggerations, and other forms of misinformation as is in the history behind William Sidis". Sidis became famous first for his precocity and later for his eccentricity and withdrawal from public life. Eventually, he avoided mathematics altogether, writing on other subjects under a number of pseudonyms.

William James Sidis was born to Jewish Ukrainian immigrants on April 1, 1898, in New York City. His father, Boris Sidis, Ph.D., M.D., had emigrated in 1887 to escape political persecution. His mother, Sarah (Mandelbaum) Sidis, M.D., and her family had fled the pogroms in 1889. Sarah attended Boston University and graduated from its School of Medicine in 1897.

William was named after his godfather, Boris' friend and colleague, the American philosopher William James. Boris was a psychiatrist, and published numerous books and articles, performing pioneering work in abnormal psychology. Boris was a polyglot and his son William would become one at a young age. Sidis's parents believed in nurturing a precocious and fearless love of knowledge, for which they were criticized. Sidis could read the New York Times at 18 months, had reportedly taught himself eight languages (Latin, Greek, French, Russian, German, Hebrew, Turkish, and Armenian) by age eight, and invented another, which he called Vendergood.

Although the University had previously refused to let his father enroll him at age nine because he was still a child, Sidis set a record in 1909 by becoming the youngest person to enroll at Harvard University. In early 1910, Sidis' mastery of higher mathematics was such that he lectured the Harvard Mathematical Club on four-dimensional bodies. MIT professor Daniel F. Comstock predicted that Sidis would become a great mathematician and a leader in that field in the future. Sidis began taking a full-time course load in 1910 and earned his Bachelor of Arts degree, cum laude, on June 18, 1914, at age 16.

Shortly after graduation, he told reporters that he wanted to live the perfect life, which to him meant living in seclusion. He granted an interview to a reporter from the Boston Herald. The paper reported Sidis's vows to remain celibate and never to marry, as he said women did not appeal to him. Later he developed a strong affection for a young woman named Martha Foley. He later enrolled at Harvard Graduate School of Arts and Sciences.

According to The Prodigy: a Biography of William James Sidis he briefly served on the League of Nations before leaving because 28th U.S. president Woodrow Wilson would not withdraw troops deployed during the Great War. He was outspoken about his pacifism.

After a group of Harvard students threatened Sidis physically, his parents secured him a job at the William Marsh Rice Institute for the Advancement of Letters, Science, and Art (now Rice University) in Houston, Texas as a mathematics teaching assistant. He arrived at Rice in December 1915 at the age of 17. He was a graduate fellow working toward his doctorate.

Sidis taught three classes: Euclidean geometry, non-Euclidean geometry, and trigonometry (he wrote a textbook for the Euclidean geometry course in Greek). After less than a year, frustrated with the department, his teaching requirements, and his treatment by students older than he was, Sidis left his post and returned to New England. When a friend later asked him why he had left, he replied, “I never knew why they gave me the job in the first place - I'm not much of a teacher. I didn't leave - I was asked to go.” Sidis abandoned his pursuit of a graduate degree in mathematics and enrolled at the Harvard Law School in September 1916, but withdrew in good standing in his final year in March 1919.

In 1919, shortly after his withdrawal from law school, Sidis was arrested for participating in a socialist May Day parade in Boston that turned violent. He was sentenced to eighteen months in prison under the Sedition Act of 1918. Sidis' arrest featured prominently in newspapers, as his early graduation from Harvard had garnered considerable local celebrity status. During the trial, Sidis stated that he had been a conscientious objector to the World War I draft, was a socialist, and spiritual. He later developed his own libertarian philosophy based on individual rights and "the American social continuity". His father arranged with the district attorney to keep Sidis out of prison before his appeal came to trial; his parents, instead, held him in their sanatorium in New Hampshire for a year. They took him to California, where he spent another year. While at the sanatorium, his parents set about "reforming" him and threatened him with transfer to an insane asylum.

After returning to the east coast in 1921, Sidis was determined to live an independent and private life. He only took work running adding machines or other fairly menial tasks. He worked in New York City and became estranged from his parents. It took years before he was cleared legally to return to Massachusetts, and he was concerned about his risk of arrest for years. He obsessively collected streetcar transfers, self-published periodicals, and taught small circles of interested friends his version of American history. In 1933, Sidis passed a Civil Service exam in New York but scored a low ranking of 254. In a private letter, Sidis wrote that this was "not so encouraging."

In 1944, Sidis won a settlement from The New Yorker for an article published in 1937. He had alleged it contained many false statements. Under the title "Where Are They Now?", the pseudonymous article described Sidis's life as lonely, in a "hall bedroom in Boston's shabby South End". Lower courts had dismissed Sidis as a public figure with no right to challenge personal publicity. He lost an appeal of an invasion of privacy lawsuit at the United States Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit in 1940 over the same article. Judge Charles Edward Clark expressed sympathy for Sidis—who claimed that the publication had exposed him to "public scorn, ridicule, and contempt" and caused him "grievous mental anguish [and] humiliation"—but found that the court was not disposed to "afford to all the intimate details of private life an absolute immunity from the prying of the press".

Sidis died in 1944 of a cerebral hemorrhage in Boston at the age of forty-six. His father had died of the same malady in 1923 at age fifty-six.

Sources: Wikipedia, Wikimedia (See page for author [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons)