The works of William Sidis (1898 – 1944 )
William James Sidis, born in Boston in 1898 to Russian émigré Boris, a psychologist and his wife Sarah, a physician, showed astonishing intellectual qualities from an exceptionally early age. By the age of one he had learned to spell in English. He taught himself to type in French and German at four and by the age of six had added Russian, Hebrew Turkish and Armenian to his repertoire. At five he devised a system which could enable him to name the day of the week on which any date in history fell. Hot-housed by his pushy father, Sidis entered Harvard at eleven, and was soon lecturing on 4 dimensional bodies to the University’s Maths Society. At twelve he suffered his first nervous breakdown, but recovered at his father’s sanatorium, and after returning to Harvard, graduated with first class honours in 1914, aged just sixteen. Law School followed and by the age of twenty Sidis had become a professor of maths at Texas Rice Institute.
It was then that his troubles began . Looking back at his social gaucheness, hatred of crowds, physical awkwardness and obsessions, it seems very probable that Sidis suffered from Asperger’s Syndrome. But decades before the condition was recognised his eccentricities and aloofness were put down to arrogance. His good looks didn’t help him and he was teased by his female students, especially when he pronounced publicly that he would never marry and intended to live the rest of his life in seclusion.
With Sidis, as with most freaks of nature, it is sometimes hard to separate fact from fiction. Take his IQ. It has been assessed at above 250 ( Einstein’s is reckoned at around 168), whereas modern psychologists insist that IQs over 170 cannot be measured. I read somewhere that he could learn a new language in a day and it has been reported that he was familiar with 200 languages. This seems unlikely. The popular image of him as reclusive comptometer operator whose main hobby was collecting tram transfers—is a travesty of the truth. Only in recent years has the true extent of Sidis’s genius emerged. Far from wasting his life in menial jobs, nerdy hobbies, and idle speculation, Sidis was a prolific writer, who at his death aged just 46 of a cranial haemorrhage, left behind a catalogue of significant contributions to cosmology , applied maths, transport system theory, anthropology and linguistics—all of which suggest that he had a wider intellectual range than did Leonardo.