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Myths, Facts, and Lies About Prodigies - A Historiography of William James Sidis

Larry Neal Gowdy

Myths, Facts, and Lies about Prodigies-
A Historiography of William James Sidis

            Abbreviated review: "[Myths] an important work and contribution to intellectual history and should be presented to the public. ...the literature review is the strongest, but the intro paragraphs do a great job of outlining the significance and importance of Sidis. [It should be] visible and available for comment and review. - C.L., Ph.D.

            A Brief Chronological Overview - The Primary Underlying Influences
            Underlying Concepts about Intelligence
            Newspaper Articles
            Bending the Twig
            The Sidis Story
            Ex-Prodigy - My Childhood and Youth
            The Broken Twig
            Source of Sources - Dan Mahony, M.Phil.
            The Prodigy
            The Outsiders

            Abstract: Myths are in part the result of individuals claiming and believing that inaccurate information is accurate, and today there exist numerous myths about intellectual prodigies. The myths’ errors are easily recognized, but the question is raised of how the myths originated. This article uses the child prodigy William Sidis story as an example of how some biographies have relied heavily on popular opinion, personal bias, imagination, and little or no evidence. The biographies’ misinterpretations have been directly responsible for many negative myths about William Sidis and prodigies in general. The cause of the errors did not originate from any single author or from any one particular source, but rather the misinterpretations were the result of numerous simultaneous influences. Psychology and philosophy were two of the primary influences that existed prior to William Sidis’ birth, and it was from those two influences that the general public’s worldview about prodigious talents was already formed. Two additional influences were non-prodigy interpretations and the lack of evidence. The result was that for over half a century biographers belittled child prodigy William Sidis as a burned-out failure, a “woeful specimen of misspent brilliance”.(1)

            “…one of the greatest realizations an infant prodigy must make: He is not wanted by the community.” Norbert Wiener.


            In 1909 Harvard held the prestige of it being the university of professor William James and of alumni psychologist Boris Sidis, a Russian immigrant. William James is still well known for his works in philosophy and psychology. Boris Sidis was ranked with psychologists Janet, Prince, and Freud. Of the Harvard student body, five were notable child prodigies. Four of the child prodigies were Roger Sessions the musician, Norbert Wiener of cybernetics, Adolf A. Berle who was later the Assistant Secretary of State, and Cedric Wing Houghton. The fifth, a language and mathematics prodigy who enrolled in 1909 and is believed by some people to have been the smartest man on earth, was eleven year old William James Sidis, the son of Boris Sidis and godson of professor William James. Beginning shortly after William Sidis' birth, Boris Sidis used psychological techniques to teach William Sidis to read. One of the techniques was termed "hypnoidal", which is a form of pre-sleep hypnosis when an individual is more susceptible to suggestion. William Sidis learned to read by twelve to eighteen months old, and by three he had learned a degree of Greek and Latin, much of which was self-taught. Depending on whose claim is to be believed, William Sidis learned between twenty to two-hundred languages or more during his lifetime. William Sidis' mathematical talents at the age of eleven were described by Norbert Wiener as: "I well remember the day at the Harvard Mathematics Club… in a talk on the four-dimensional regular figures. The talk would have done credit to a first- or second-year graduate student of any age." Although languages and mathematics were William Sidis' early strengths, he did have other interests as well: "…his favorite subject became American history, and he announced before he got his B.A. that he wanted to be a lawyer."

            Norbert Wiener also wrote of professor E. V. Huntington's class: "Both Sidis and I were in the class, and it was there that I first became aware of the boy's real ability and how great a loss mathematics suffered in his premature breakdown." During his first year of classes, William Sidis left Harvard for some months because of a nervous breakdown shortly after having given his speech on four dimensional "bodies." Opposing claims state that William Sidis had caught the flu and needed rest. Wiener also stated that William Sidis "…was left alone in a roominghouse [sic] for the greater part of the year in a Cambridge in which he had few personal friends and even fewer intimates." Perhaps William Sidis may have just wanted to go home? At about twenty-one years old he fully abandoned formal education shortly after he was arrested and charged for incitement to riot during a pro-socialist march in 1918. The events following the second so-called breakdown are what society has primarily used to judge William Sidis as a failure. As the story unfolds, William Sidis withdrew from formal academia, moved into a low rent section of Boston, purposefully chose non-academic jobs where coworkers did not know of his fame, he maintained his interests in social structuring and history, and he apparently tried to live a life away from the nuisance of newspaper reporters. By the latter half of the 20th century Boris Sidis had become an unknown to the general public, and once every few years a new article or book spoke negatively of William Sidis. What could have possibly happened? Did William Sidis really have a breakdown at about twenty years old, and if so, then why did he not receive sympathy instead of ridicule? ...
            (Below is an abbreviated list of references cited in the book. Note that specific pages and comments have been removed from this list. A full reference listing is in the book.)

1. Kathleen Montour, "William James Sidis, The Broken Twig", American Psychologist - Journal of the American Psychological Association.
2. Amy Wallace, The Prodigy: A Biography of William James Sidis, America's Greatest Child Prodigy.
3. Harold Addington Bruce, "Masters of the Mind - Remarkable Cures Effected by Four Great Experts Without the Aid of Drugs or Surgical Tools".
4. Wiener, Ex-Prodigy - My Childhood and Youth.
5. Wiener, Ex-Prodigy.
6. Boris Sidis, "The Psychotherapeutic Value of the Hypnoidal State", Psychotherapeutics.
7. Wiener, Ex-Prodigy.
8. Wallace, The Prodigy.
9. Wiener, Ex-Prodigy.
10. Wallace, The Prodigy.
11. Wiener, Ex-Prodigy.
12. Wallace, The Prodigy.
13. Wallace, The Prodigy.
14. Wallace, The Prodigy.
15. Louis Menand, The Metaphysical Club - A Story of Ideas in America.
16. Kenneth S. Pope, "Memory, Abuse, and Science: Questioning Claims about the False Memory Syndrome Epidemic".
17. Wiener, Ex-Prodigy.
18. Dr. Brent Logan, "Infant Outcomes of a Prenatal Stimulation Pilot Study", Pre and Perinatal Psychology Journal.
19. William James Sidis, "Unconscious Intelligence".
20. Robin A. H. Waterfield, Plato - Theaetetus.
21. John Calvin, Commentary on the Holy Gospel of Jesus Christ According to John, Calvin's Commentaries.
22. Benjamin Whorf, The Relation of Habitual Thought and Behavior to Language.
23. Edward Sapir, The Status of Linguistics as a Science.
24. Charles Darwin, Descent of Man, 1874.
25. An interview with David Bohm conducted by F. David Peat and John Briggs.
26. Alfred Binet, The Mind and the Brain.
27. Morihei Ueshiba, The Art of Peace.
28. William James, The Varieties of Religious Experience.
30. (comments)
31. James, The Varieties of Religious Experience.
32. William K. Clifford, The Ethics of Belief.
33. Larry Neal Gowdy, Logics Origin of Ethics, Morals, Virtue, and Quality.
34. William James, The Principles of Psychology.
35. James, Principles of Psychology.
36. James, Principles of Psychology.
37. Lewis Terman, The Measurement of Intelligence - An Explanation of and a Complete Guide for the Use of the Stanford Revision and Extension of the Binet-Simon Intelligence Scale.
38. Terman, Measurement of Intelligence.
39. Terman, Measurement of Intelligence.
40. Wallace, The Prodigy.
41. Jared Manley, "Where are they Now? April Fool!", The New Yorker.
42. District Court of the United States decision.
43. Wallace, The Prodigy.
44. "Prodigy", Boston Traveler.
45. Wallace, The Prodigy.
46. Boston Traveler.
47. Boston Traveler.
48. Boston Traveler.
49. Wallace, The Prodigy.
50. Boston Traveler.
51. Alice Burke, "Sidis' Boyhood Seen Case of All Work and No Play", Boston Traveler.
53. Ruth Reynolds, "Taught Son Everything But How to Live", Boston Sunday Post.
54. Sarah Sidis, The Sidis Story.
55. Harold Addington Bruce, "Bending the Twig: The Education of the Eleven-year-old Boy Who Lectured Before the Harvard Professors on the Fourth Dimension", American Magazine.
56. Wiener, Ex-Prodigy.
57. Montour, "The Broken Twig".
58. Harold Addington Bruce, "Masters of the Mind - Remarkable Cures Effected by Four Great Experts Without the Aid of Drugs or Surgical Tools", American Magazine.
59. Sarah Sidis, The Sidis Story.
60. Wiener, Ex-Prodigy.
61. Wiener, Ex-Prodigy.
62. Larry Neal Gowdy, Myths, Facts, and Lies about Prodigies, an unfinished manuscript.
63. Montour, Broken Twig.
64. Montour, Broken Twig.
65. Wiener, Ex-Prodigy.
66. Wallace, The Prodigy.
67. Pope, Memory, Abuse, and Science.
68. Montour, Broken Twig.
69. Montour, Broken Twig.
70. Dan Mahony, Sidis Archives.
71. Mahony, Sidis Archives.
72. Pope, Memory, Abuse, and Science.
73. Dan Mahony, The Failure Myth - A Short Biography of W. J. Sidis.
74. Wallace, The Prodigy.
75. Wallace, The Prodigy.
76. William James Sidis, The Animate and the Inanimate.
77. Wallace, The Prodigy.
78. Wallace, The Prodigy.
79. Wallace, The Prodigy.
80. Grady Towers, "The Outsiders", The Gift of Fire.
81. Towers, Outsiders.
82. William Sidis, Passaconaway in the White Mountains.
83. Wallace, The Prodigy.
84. Wallace, The Prodigy.
85. Sperling, A Story of Genius.
86. Wallace, The Prodigy.
87. Sarah Sidis, The Sidis Story.
88. Wallace, The Prodigy.
89. "Attacks In 6 Other Cities", The New York Times.
90. "Attacks In 6 Other Cities", The New York Times.

Keywords: Prodigy, The Prodigy, Ex-Prodigy, The Bent Twig, The Broken Twig, The Outsiders, Art of Peace, The Measurement of Intelligence, The Varieties of Religious Experience, The Principles of Psychology, William James Sidis, William James, Boris Sidis, Sarah Sidis, Helena Sidis, Norbert Wiener, Lewis Terman, Kathleen Montour, Dan Mahony, John Wheeler, David Bohm, Plato, John Calvin, Edward Sapir, Benjamin Whorf, Charles Darwin, Morihei Ueshiba, H. Addington Bruce, Buckminster Fuller, Grady Towers, Amy Wallace, genius, IQ, IQ tests, intelligence, psychology, philosophy, cosmology, physics, history, Christianity, Buddhism, Zen, Islam, Aikido, American Psychological Association, American Psychologist, National Academy of Science, Harvard, Johns Hopkins University, Rice University, government, education, politics, socialism, communism, misinterpretations, inventions, hearsay, myths, beauty.

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            The book is only available in the Mobipocket e-book format at Myths, Facts, and Lies About Prodigies.

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