This Math Guy Spoke 25 Languages but Had His Life Ruined
William Sidis had unbelievable mathematical and linguistic skills. He was a wunderkind and supposedly spoke 25 languages and dialects. Still, no one talks about him today because he didn’t accomplish as much as his fellow scientists. His life could have been better but he didn’t grow up like every other child. He was a sensation instead.
Sidis was unbelievably bright. Albert Einstein had an IQ of 160, Sir Isaac Newton 190, and Mark Zuckerberg 152. These are the men we associate with being smart. But Sidis supposedly had an IQ between 250 and 300. Maybe his sister was stretching the truth when she saw his Civil Service exam. There he ranked on the list as 254, which she took for his IQ score.
Still, he was a child prodigy. William James Sidis was an extraordinary mathematician, a polyglot, and a gifted writer. Mathematician Norbert Wiener, physicist Daniel Frost Comstock, and philosopher William James claimed he was extremely intelligent. Unfortunately, it didn’t help him lead a peaceful life.
He Was His Parents’ Project
He was born in New York in 1898. His parents were Jewish immigrants from Ukraine. They came to the United States of America (USA) to get away from political and anti-Semitic abuse. His father, Boris, was a renowned psychiatrist specializing in psychopathology. William’s mother was a doctor. Since the boy’s parents were smart and successful, they had great expectations of him. They wanted to instill a huge love for knowledge but went too far with it.
The New York Times once described him with ridicule as “a wonderfully successful result of a scientific forcing experiment”.
The boy surpassed his parents and became much above the average. But their ambition ruined his life. William’s father wanted to make him a star since he was also reputable and well-known. Boris was a polyglot who completed four degrees at Harvard. To make his child extraordinary, the old man started to apply his knowledge in psychology and pressure the boy.
When he was 18 months old, William could already read the New York Times. When he was eight, he taught himself Latin, Greek, Russian, Hebrew, German, French, Turkish, and Armenian. And that was not all.
He Invented Vendergood
The boy also invented his own language. When he was eight, he wrote a book by the title The Book of Vendergood. The language he called Vendergood had Latin, Greek, German, and French elements. It also had grammar rules, tenses, and even eight moods. This is how the numbers sounded in Vendergood:
eis — one
duet — two
tre — three
guar — four
quin — five
sex — six
sep — seven
oo(oe?) — eight
non — nine
ecem — ten
elevenos — eleven
dec — twelve
eidec (eis, dec) — thirteen
In the book, Sidis offered a small dictionary to communicate in Vendergood, both in the source language and their translation:
Do I love the young man? = Amevo (-)ne the neania?
It was evident to everyone that the eight-year-old boy had a brilliant mind. There were so many things he could achieve. His father had a plan.
William Sidis Spent His Childhood at Harvard
Boris Sidis tried to get William to Harvard at the age of nine but they rejected the application. Still, only two years later, in 1909, William set the record: He became the youngest person to get into Harvard. By 1910 his knowledge in higher mathematics increased so much that professors let him lecture the Harvard Mathematics Club at the age of 12.
MIT (Massachusetts Institute of Technology) physics professor Daniel F. Comstock was delighted:
“I predict that young Sidis will be a great astronomical mathematician. He will evolve new theories and invent new ways of calculating astronomical phenomena. I believe he will be a great mathematician, the leader in that science in the future.”
Newspapers went crazy. A child prodigy is teaching at Harvard! That same year he started with his Harvard studies and graduated in 1914 at the age of 16. He earned a Bachelor of Arts degree, cum laude. There were reporters again around William, asking him about his hopes and dreams. This young man could be anything he wanted! He knew so much and had his whole life ahead of him.
However, fame had obviously taken its toll. William told the reporters he wanted to live a perfect life. In other words, it was living in seclusion.
He Couldn’t Find His Place Anywhere
In an interview for Boston Herald, he said he was never going to get married. He wasn’t interested in women and wanted to remain in celibacy. The pressure he suffered from his parents made him not want to be famous. Later he fell in love with journalist Martha Foley but remained single.
William later enrolled at Harvard Graduate School of Arts and Sciences. For a short time, he served at the League of Nations. Still, he left it soon because Woodrow Wilson didn’t withdraw the troops from World War I.
At 17, he taught three classes at today’s Rice University, Texas. But the students who were older than him treated him badly, so he was let go. He enrolled at Harvard Law School and then withdrew in his final year although he was a good student.
William enjoyed learning as a child, but his attitude toward his father changed this. The young man blamed him for everything. Their relationship was so strained he refused to come to Boris’s funeral in 1923.
As geniuses usually do so they don’t stick out, William also had a poorly paid ordinary job. He worked as a minister's assistant. It didn’t help much. People still recognized him, so he left the job. In 1924, journalists discovered he was working as a manual worker. This time they weren’t so enthusiastic to glorify him. The headlines mocked the former child prodigy. They claimed William could no longer do what he knew as a boy. Ha-ha, he was ruined!
However, this was far from the truth. The proof was found after his death in many books he wrote under different pseudonyms.
After a while, things got even worse.
The False Arrest
In 1919, a few years before his father died, William was arrested. Although he tried to live as a loner, they jailed him. He took part in a socialist Mayday parade in Boston that ended up in violence, being sentenced to 18 months in prison. The story ended up in newspapers: the famous wunderkind was a violent socialist! This is how Boston Herald started the report about his court case in 1919:
“William James Sidis, who was graduated from Harvard at the age of 15, told Judge Albert F. Hayden in the Roxbury Municipal Court yesterday that he is a Socialist, a believer in the soviet form of government, that he believed in evolution, that he does not believe in a god, that his god is evolution, and that he believes in our form of government to the extent of the Declaration of Independence.”
He was a Russian, a heathen, a crazy person!
During the court proceedings, he also discussed his book The Animate and the Inanimate. There he talked about the origin of life. Sidis elaborated on William James’s theory that each one of us has “reserve energy” which we can use under extreme conditions. Sidis’s learning in childhood was the proof for it. The mathematician also stated that life has existed forever and stars are “alive” just repeating the cycle of light and dark.
People were astounded. What was this young man talking about?
The Ending He Didn’t Deserve
His parents got him out of prison. They “helped” their son by putting him in their sanatorium in New Hampshire for a year instead. They started “reforming” William and threatened to send him to a mental institution if he didn’t listen.
In 1921, at the age of 23, William finally came back to the East Coast. He was set to live a private independent life. He became estranged from his family and did menial work to make ends meet. For many years he worried about being arrested again. He wrote periodicals and taught several friends his version of American history.
In 1944, the former wunderkind won a settlement from the New Yorker. Journalist James Thurber wrote pseudonymously about him as a lonely guy living in “hall bedroom in Boston’s shabby South End”. Judge Charles Edward Clark sympathized with Sidis for being ridiculed. He said this caused Sidis “grievous mental anguish [and] humiliation," but couldn’t protect him “from the prying of the press”.
That same year, William James Sidis died suddenly at the age of 46. The cause of death was cerebral hemorrhage, just like his father’s, the man who was responsible for ruining his life.
William James Sidis, the man who could have changed the world, was the victim of his parents’ ambitions, media sensationalism, and political circumstances. All he wanted was to be left alone but he was too smart to live his life in peace.