The most intelligent man in the world had a prodigious mind and an IQ between 250 and 300. William James Sidis was a human calculator and a linguistic genius. Because he was so intelligent, great things were expected of him. However, he had a problem that he was never able to solve and led him to an early death: sadness.
Let’s imagine for a moment an 18-month old child who can already read The New York Times. Now we see him at the age of eight, speaking fluent French, German, Russian, Turkish, Armenian, Latin, and of course his native language, English. Let’s go a little further and visualize this same small child at 9 years of age, creating a new language called “vendergood,” studied by linguists and declared to be complete, correct, and fascinating.
This child was William James Sidis, son of Jewish-Russian immigrants, born in New York on April 1st, 1898. Much has been said of him, and much more has been written about him. As often happens, fiction blurs with reality. Facts are exaggerated and writers paint a pretty picture from a man’s biography that is, in reality, quite grim. That said, from a psychological point of view, his biography is tremendously fascinating.
The physical testimony and documentaries corroborate many of the facts. One of them is simple and transcendent: In spite of being so intelligent, William J. Sidis never had a childhood or enjoyed being a little boy. When he was only 9 years old, he was accepted into Harvard University. On a cold night in January in 1910, at the age of twelve, he gave his first lecture about the fourth dimension to the scientific community and the press.
His parents, a famous Russian psychologist and one of the first female medical doctors of that time, had a very clear goal in mind: to raise a genius. They educated his mind and completely forgot the essential part: his heart and his emotions.
William James Sidis
The most intelligent man had good genes, aptitude, and a highly favorable environment
To learn every detail about the life of “the most intelligent man in the world,” we used the book “The Prodigy: A Biography of William James Sadis, America’s Greatest Child Prodigy”, by Amy Wallace. We were immediately struck by the way the book describes how our protagonist was raised.
Both his mother and his father had brilliant minds, and the genetic factor obviously played an important part in developing his high-level intelligence. However, the purpose of the couple in having a child was as clear as it was controversial: they wanted to train the child’s mind so that he would be a genius.
A life in the lab and on public display
In addition to the genetic factor, William grew up in a highly stimulating and learning-conducive environment that was designed with a specific purpose in mind. We know that his father, Boris Sidis, used sophisticated techniques including hypnosis, to foster his son’s potential and abilities at an early age.
His mother’s contribution was to leave medicine to, in her words, “model” the child, and come up with new learning strategies. It is worth mentioning that William himself showed a strong willingness to learn, but constantly being on display for the public and for the media traumatized him.
His parents frequently published academic articles about the child’s achievements. The media, as well as the scientific community, kept tabs on him. We know that while he was studying at Harvard, he suffered from daily stalking by the press. After graduating cum laude and impressing academics with his theories about the fourth dimension, they took him to the University of Houston to give math classes and to start his law degree.
He was 16 when his mind simply said “enough.” Then he began what he called a pilgrimage to the abyss.Share
The sad end of the most intelligent man in the world
William wouldn’t finish his law degree or any other, despite his intelligent. He wasn’t even 17 years old when he decided to rebel against his environment. In this academic and experimental world, he felt like a lab rat, his every thought and every move analyzed under a microscope. In 1919 he was arrested and taken to jail for inciting a protest and recruiting young people for the communist movement.
Given his importance and the influence of his parents, he was quickly released from jail. However, in his desire to defy his parents and society, he didn’t stop there. He caused youth uprisings against capitalism and was extremely arrogant in front of the judges. He was finally imprisoned for two years, achieving what he truly desired: solitude and isolation.
After his release, the first thing that William J. Sidis did was change his name. He longed for an uneventful life, but he was constantly pursued by his parents and the press. In an attempt to escape them, he began his continuous pilgrimage throughout the United States, finding random jobs and doing what he liked most: writing. He published multiple times under various pseudonyms. He wrote books about history and books about black hole theory. According to his biographers, there could be dozens of forgotten books written by William J. Sidis hiding under a false identity.
William J. Sidis
A lonely and premature end for the most intelligent man
William J. Sidis loved only one woman: Martha Foley, a young Irish activist with whom he had an unequal and complex relationship. Her photo was the only thing found in his clothes when they discovered his lifeless body in a small apartment in Boston in 1944. He was 46 years old and he died from a stroke.
His last years were spent hopping from court to court. The press enjoyed defaming him. “The child genius who never amounted to anything now cries as he works as a stock boy”, “the most intelligent man in the world has a miserable life”, “the math and linguistic genius has burnt out”, “William J. Sidis is tired of thinking“.
We don’t know if he really did tire of thinking or living. Nevertheless, what we can deduce from reading his biographies is that he was tired of society, his family, and the academic world that had placed such high expectations on him, even before he was born.
He grew tired of not being able to be himself, and even when he had the opportunity to do it, he couldn’t. He was an expert in black holes and the fourth dimension, but the most important subject of life slipped through his fingers: to learn about and fight for your own happiness…Share
William James Sidis is still the person with the highest IQ every registered. Next up is young Terence Tao, with an IQ of 225-230, a young Australian mathematician who currently gives classes at the University of Los Angeles.
It’s very likely that in some part of the world there is an unidentified child genius (or several) who have similar or even higher IQs. The truth is it doesn’t matter because numbers are only that: numbers. The most important thing in these cases is that they are allowed to have a childhood, to be kids, to enjoy secure emotional attachments that allow them to fulfill their desires, freely and without pressure.
Because as we have seen from this story, extreme intelligence is not always synonymous with happiness.