April/May 1979 | Volume 30, Issue 3
Early in 1910 the solemn boy on the opposite page stood at a podium in his velvet knickers and, with halting eleven-year-old gravity, addressed a hundred Harvard professors and advanced mathematics students on “Four-Dimensional Bodies.” Though his speculations were too abstruse for some in the audience, Professor Daniel Comstock of MIT followed them all and, at the end of the talk, assured baffled reporters that the boy, William James Sidis, was destined to become one of the great mathematicians of the age. Papers across the country picked up the story, and for a while Sidis was the most famous child in America.
The boy’s extraordinary brilliance was more than fortuitous, or so his father, Boris, believed. The elder Sidis, a Russian-born pioneer in the field of psychopathology, was also deeply interested in early education and firmly convinced that the brain was at its most receptive in the first years of life. In 1898, with the birth of his son, he gained a perfect subject for his experiments. “To delay is a mistake and wrong to the child,” he wrote later in a self-congratulatory book about his son’s education. “We can at that early period awaken a love of knowledge which will persist through life.” Dr. Sidis certainly did not delay. William was still in his crib when his father, using alphabet blocks, began to teach him English.
For a while it all went wonderfully. By the time William was two, he was picking out sentences on a typewriter; at five, he produced a treatise on anatomy and worked out a formula with which he instantly could calculate the day of the week on which any date in history fell; at six, he astounded teachers in the Brookline, Massachusetts, public school system by roaring through a seven-year course of study in just six months; at eight, he developed an entirely new logarithmic table; and at nine, his father decided he was ready to enter Harvard.
University officials didn’t know quite what to do with this monstrously able child. He was clearly qualified for undergraduate work, but finally they decided he was emotionally immature, and suggested he come back in two years.
Even with this delay, William James Sidis was the youngest student ever to attend Harvard when he entered at eleven, taking the record away from Cotton Mather, who matriculated at age twelve in 1674. That winter, the boy gave the lecture on the fourth dimension that established him as the salient child prodigy of his era. The next year, he had a nervous breakdown.
Boris Sidis took his son up to Portsmouth, New Hampshire, where he had founded the Sidis Psycotherapeutic Institute, and treated him there. In a few months, the boy was back at school. His fellow undergraduate Buckminster Fuller met him after his return. “Most students considered him a freak,” said Fuller. “He was sixteen when I knew him, but his parents still sent him to school dressed like a boy of twelve. In those days a boy automatically put on long trousers when he was fourteen, but Willy Sidis still wore Little Lord Fauntleroy short pants and high-buttoned shoes. Some of us thought he was being dangerously overloaded, and he showed some signs of distress, but no one imagined anything but the greatest success for him.” Sidis graduated cum laude at sixteen, but his celebrity was weighing on him. “I want to live the perfect life,” he told newspaper reporters on his graduation day. “The only way to live the perfect life is to live it in seclusion. I have always hated crowds.” He already had vowed never to marry, and had struck a medal commemorating the decision.
He turned in his usual brilliant performance at Harvard Law School, but mathematics remained his chief interest, and in 1918 he took a job teaching it at Rice University in Texas. When he got there, however, he was dismayed to find himself once again the center of attention as the famous child prodigy. He quit his new job abruptly and returned to Boston. There he began consciously dismantling the wonderful, painful intellectual mechanism nature and his ambitious father had given him.
In 1924 a reporter found him working as a clerk in a Wall Street office for twenty-three dollars per week. Sidis said that all he wanted was anonymity, enough money to get by on, and a job that made no demands on him. Then he dropped from sight.
In 1926 the man who was going to be the greatest scientific light of his time published his only work, a three-hundred-page treatise on collecting streetcar transfers. For years Sidis had been prowling the streets after work and on weekends, seeking the discarded slips of paper. He had over sixteen hundred different ones. They gave him an immense amount of pleasure.
The book, Notes on the Collection of Transfers , contains densely printed arcana about various interconnecting lines, scraps of verse about streetcars, and some simple, foolish streetcar jokes that the author might have enjoyed in his childhood, had he had one. Sidis published it under the unlovely pseudonym of Frank Folupa, but reporters managed to ascribe the book to him, tracked him down, and again he fled.
He took a job working on an adding machine, but blew his cover when, a co-worker recalled, “Somebody showed him a new set of tables… prepared by some of our top experts as an aid in solving certain complicated statistical problems. … Sidis studied them for a while and suggested a simple way of eliminating all the difficulties. It was obvious that he had forgotten nothing . After that brilliant demonstration, the pressure on Sidis to conform increased, he began to look and behave like a trapped animal, and finally he resigned.”
In 1937 a correspondent for The New Yorker found him. “The very sight of a mathematical formula makes me physically ill,” Sidis said. “All I want to do is run an adding machine, but they won’t let me alone.” The correspondent mentioned Professor Comstock’s sanguine prediction of nearly thirty years before, and Sidis grinned. “It’s strange,” he said, “but, you know, I was born on April Fools’ Day.” When the article came out, Sidis sued The New Yorker for invasion of privacy. In the hall bedroom of a shabby South Boston rooming house, he scribbled out his own briefs, advancing the pathetic argument that he was no longer a genius. He had become an ordinary man, he said, and would take intelligence tests to prove it. The lawsuit was thrown out of court, and Sidis continued his solitary wandering from job to job, picking up streetcar transfers along the way. He was forty-six years old and had just been forced from a clerk’s post in the State Department of Unemployment Compensation in the summer of 1944 when a cerebral hemorrhage brought his long, inverted childhood to an end.