What Happened To The Smartest Man Who Ever Lived? – William J. Sidis Bio

Sam Watson
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William James Sidis, with an estimated IQ of 250-300, surpassing even Einstein, is often cited as one of the most intelligent individuals in history. Despite his extraordinary intellectual capabilities, Sidis’s life took a path far removed from the public expectations that his early brilliance had set. After astonishing the academic world as a child prodigy, he chose to lead a reclusive and private life as an adult.

In the late 1800s, New York harbor welcomed many Russian Jewish immigrants fleeing persecution. Among these were Boris and Sarah Sidis, who quickly stood out in the United States due to their intellect. Boris was a pioneer in psychology, and Sarah was one of the few women to earn a medical degree.

After excelling at Harvard, Boris became a psychology professor there, contributing pioneering theories in hypnosis, group psychology, and mob behavior, alongside exploring evolution’s impact on the human psyche. He advocated unique treatments, including the “rest cure,” which involved lengthy bed rest and sometimes electrotherapy for mental disorder treatment. Boris’s work was notably experimental during a period of significant progress in psychology.

On April 1, 1898, Boris Sidis found a practical application for his unconventional psychological theories when his son, William James Sidis, was born. Guided by his brilliant but unconventional parents, William grew into a person of remarkable abilities.

From the outset, Boris and Sarah actively engaged in their son William’s early education, with remarkable results. Employing methods akin to hypnosis with wooden blocks for alphabet learning, William quickly began absorbing and reproducing knowledge. By six months, he could say “door,” and soon added “moon” to his vocabulary. At eight months, not only could he feed himself with a spoon—a milestone rarely reached in the first year—but he also recognized and repeated letters from the blocks, demonstrating symbol recognition skills of a child several years older.

At just 11 years old, William Sidis made headlines as the youngest student ever to enroll at Harvard University, demonstrating prodigious talents that suggested he was on a trajectory to surpass even Albert Einstein in intellectual achievements.

Despite showing early promise in a wide array of subjects, including creating his own language and excelling in mathematics, Sidis’ potential never fully materialized into the greatness many had predicted. The son of immigrants who had escaped persecution, Sidis was subjected to his parents’ intense ambitions from a young age.

His father, Boris, a psychologist, and his mother, Sarah, a doctor, were determined to mold him into a genius, a project that seemed successful when, by eight, Sidis was already a polyglot with a deep understanding of mathematics.

Despite enrolling in Harvard at 11 and wowing professors and peers with his intellect, Sidis’ life took a turn away from the public expectations of grandeur. He later denounced the limelight and academic pursuits for a more secluded life, struggling to find his place in a world that seemed too ordinary for his extraordinary mind.

William Sidis sought anonymity in adulthood, publishing books on niche topics under pseudonyms.

Among these, his treatise on streetcar transfer collections stands out for its exhaustive detail, earning it a reputation as exceptionally dull. Sidis also speculated on dark matter before it was officially recognized and suggested that the democratic practices of a Native American tribe influenced America’s founding fathers. Despite his efforts to live quietly, the media pursued him, ridiculing his modest occupations and unfulfilled promise.

From 1921 to 1944, Sidis sought a life of independence and privacy on the East Coast, engaging in modest employment such as operating adding machines and distancing himself from his family. His relocation back to Massachusetts was delayed by legal issues and fears of arrest. Sidis indulged in his passion for collecting streetcar transfers, self-published works, and shared his unique perspective on American history with a close-knit group. Despite passing a Civil Service exam in New York in 1933, his low score left him disheartened. In 1935, he penned an unpublished manuscript, “The Tribes and the States,” exploring Native American influences on American democratic principles.

In 1944, Sidis secured a legal victory against The New Yorker for a 1937 article he claimed was misleading and defamatory. The piece, written under a pseudonym by James Thurber, portrayed Sidis’s existence as solitary, living in modest quarters in Boston’s South End. Although initially considered a public figure without recourse to privacy rights, Sidis’s appeal highlighted the distress and humiliation the article caused, challenging the press’s freedom to invade personal privacy. Despite the appellate court’s empathy towards Sidis, it ultimately upheld that private lives could not be completely shielded from journalistic curiosity.

Despite his extraordinary intelligence, it’s believed Sidis grappled with personal difficulties, including struggles with substance use and mental health issues. These challenges, largely kept private by his parents but impacted his life and well-being.

Tragically, at 46, Sidis suffered a fatal stroke in his Boston apartment, ending the life of a man who had wowed Harvard at 11 but died a reclusive clerk. Those close to him in his final years witnessed his intellectual brilliance and linguistic proficiency, mastering over forty languages. However, his societal contributions were minimal, a fact attributed by some to parental pressure in childhood and media intrusion driving him into seclusion. Sidis was believed to adhere to the Okamakammesset philosophy of valuing anonymous societal contributions, possibly influencing his choice to avoid the limelight.

His sister reported that a psychologist once estimated his IQ to be between 250-300, affirming his exceptional intelligence. Sidis’s potential impact on mathematics and science remains a subject of speculation, overshadowed by his early achievements and subsequent retreat from public life.

Sidis’ later years were marked by his rejection of societal norms, including swearing off relationships and living a life of obscurity, which he seemed to prefer over his early fame. Despite his unparalleled IQ and early academic achievements, Sidis chose a path that led him away from the destiny many had foreseen, dying at the age of 46 without having achieved the fame or impact on the world that his early life had promised. His story remains a harsh reminder of the pressures of prodigy and the complex interplay between genius, expectation, and personal fulfillment.

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