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The Smartest Person You’ve Probably Never Heard Of

Was Billy Sidis the smartest person ever?
Billy Sidis, shown in the picture right in his 1914 graduation photograph, received his degree from Harvard University, magna cum laude when he was 16. He qualified for admission to Harvard when he was nine but was not invited to attend until age 11, at which age the Faculty thought he would be more mature[1].

Introducing William James Sidis
William James (Billy) Sidis (1898-1944) was an American child prodigy with exceptional mathematical and linguistic skills. He is notable for his 1920 book The Animate and the Inanimate, in which he speculated about what he called ‘the origin of life in the context of thermodynamics’.

The son of two Ukrainian Jews who emigrated to America in the late 1800s from their homeland to escape political and antisemitic persecution, William Sidis was born in New York on April Fool’s Day 1898. He was named after one of his father’s friends and colleagues, the philosopher William James[2], who originated the idea of a ‘stream of thought.’

Parents, Boris and Sarah Sidis, both intellectuals despite difficult upbringings, believed in treating their son as an adult, insisting that everything young Billy did, he did so in pursuit of knowledge. Billy’s parents shared a philosophy: To give their son the tools to think, to reason and to learn.

Picture Credit: Unknown author – The Sidis Archives, Public Domain: Wikimedia Commons.
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Billy read the New York Times and tapped out letters on a typewriter from his highchair in English and French by age two. He wrote one such letter to Macy’s department store, inquiring about toys. But his time to act like a child had already passed by young William. Studying seven different languages (French, German, Latin, Hebrew, Greek, Russian, and one he made up himself – Vendergood) and learning a high school curriculum at seven, left Billy precious little time to act his age. His parents wanted the whole world to know about their prodigal son, as well as their participation in all of it[3].

I want to live the perfect life.
The only way to live the perfect life is through seclusion.
I have always hated crowds.”
William James Sidis

Sidis was raised in a particular manner by his father, psychiatrist Boris Sidis, who wished his son to be gifted. Sidis first became famous for his precocity and later for his eccentricity and withdrawal from public life. Eventually, he avoided mathematics altogether, writing on other subjects under several pseudonyms. As an adult, Billy had an extremely high IQ and was conversant in about 25 languages and dialects.

When Billy was barely three years old, he taught himself Latin. By the time he was six, he had added Russian, French, German, Hebrew, Armenian and Turkish to his lengthy linguistic resume — along with Latin and his native tongue, English. At the age of six, Billy had learned Aristotelian logic and went on to become an extreme atheist after studying all of the religions. But the most fascinating skill he had was the total recall of everything he read (otherwise known as a photographic (long period) memory[4]), rather than eidetic memory with which the accurate recall ability is retained for a shorter period.

His mother, Sarah, a doctor, read him Greek myths as bedtime stories. His father, Boris, a budding superstar in the nascent field of psychology, eschewed physical activity for young Billy, instead engaging his son in debates about psychology and all sorts of other academic pursuits.

Billy clutched his volume of Shakespeare on entering first-grade school. He graduated from primary school in only seven months and wrote at least four books between ages six and eight. And at eight, he passed both the Harvard Medical School anatomy exam and the entrance exam to get into the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. His IQ was considered 50 to 100 points higher than Albert Einstein’s.

As National Public Radio suggested in 2011, William James Sidis was perhaps the smartest guy ever[5].

As it turns out, for all his intelligence and all his early accomplishments, the smartest guy ever had an often-troubled and all-too-short life. It’s a life that might serve today as a cautionary tale for those who are supremely academically talented and those who come in and out of their very special sphere.

As Billy raced through primary school and into high school — he finished the four years of high school in six weeks — the press began to take notice. By 1909, when he entered Harvard as an 11-year-old, he was a full-blown media sensation. For much of his young life, with a few gaps here and there, the press followed him closely, something that Billy came to loathe.

William — he was called that once he entered Harvard — showed an early proficiency in languages, but later became a veritable genius in mathematics, too, devising a series of logarithmic tables. He held his first lecture, with Harvard faculty on hand, in 1910. He was still just 11. Richard Buckminster Fuller, the American architect, systems theorist, author, designer, inventor, critic of work and futurist, was a classmate of Billy at Harvard.

Sidis was an extraordinary mathematician, a polyglot, and a gifted writer. Mathematician Norbert Wiener, MIT professor Daniel Frost Comstock, and philosopher William James claimed that Sidis was ‘extremely intelligent’. Unfortunately, it didn’t help him lead a peaceful life[6].

According to the Amy Wallace biography, “His [Billy Sidic’s] method of thinking is real intellect. It is not automatic. He does not cram his head with facts. He reasons,” Professor Comstock said, adding, “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.”

But William’s future turned out in a way that no one expected, and it wasn’t for the better.

Living with his Genius
Life was not easy at Harvard. Although his schoolwork was unquestioned, Sidis failed miserably outside of the classroom. He had no interest in girls or any aspect of social life and was often ridiculed by his much older classmates.

Shortly after graduating from Harvard, Sidis moved west to work on a graduate degree at what is now Rice University in Houston. He taught several classes, too, but lasted less than a year there before returning to Boston. He enrolled in Harvard Law School, though he never obtained a law degree or pursued a law career.

In 1919, struggling to adjust to life outside of an academic setting, he was arrested and sentenced to 18 months in jail for his part in a socialist demonstration in Boston. His father kept him from prison by confining him to a sanatorium for a year in New Hampshire. After his incarceration and a year in California, William returned to the East Coast, where for years, he worked a series of uninspiring jobs, writing self-published manuscripts and teaching on the side.

In 1925, his most famous work, “The Animate and the Inanimate” — the publisher says it touches on “the origins of life, cosmology, the potential reversibility of the second law through Maxwell’s Demon, among other things” — was published to little fanfare. In it, William suggests the existence of what are now known as black holes.

Billy Sidis died in Boston of a cerebral haemorrhage in 1944. He was 46 years old. His father had died from the same malady in 1923 at age 56[7]. After Billy’s death, his sister made the unverifiable claim that his IQ was “the very highest that had ever been obtained,” but any records of any IQ testing that Sidis actually took have been lost to history[8].

The Challenges of Giftedness
William Sidis remains the frontline case study of a ‘failed’ child prodigy. Over the years, education experts, the media, and everyday parents of non-prodigies have pointed fingers at Boris and Sarah for being too pushy, too concerned about their son’s academics, and not worried enough about producing a well-rounded and adjusted child. William’s story still fuels the debate on how a gifted child should be raised, and whether giftedness is inherited — as Boris and Sarah believed — or more influenced by environment.

Major academic studies have looked into child prodigies and how they fare in later life. A famed one, the Terman Study of the Gifted [9] (originally known as Genetic Studies of Genius), was begun in 1921 by Stanford psychologist Lewis Terman. It followed more than 1,500 students for more than 80 years. The Terman study has been criticised by many over the years. But its findings, in large part, still hold up, and its data continues to be used by social scientists today.

It is said that most people tagged as ‘genius’ were born ahead of their time, but in the case of Billy Sidis, he seems to have been born at the wrong time completely[10]. One can look at Sidis’ social ‘gaucheness’, his hatred of crowds, physical awkwardness and obsessions, and in hindsight, conclude that he probably suffered from Asperger’s Syndrome. But decades before the condition was recognised, his eccentricities and aloofness were put down to arrogance. Even his good looks didn’t help, and he was teased by female students, especially when he pronounced he would never marry, and he intended to live in seclusion for the rest of his life.

Source and Further Reading

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Boris Sidis: Ukrainian-American Psychologist, Physician, Psychiatrist, Philosopher of Education, and the father of Billy Sidis
Picture Credit: The Marden Studio, Public Domain, via Wikimedia Commons
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  1. Source: Biographer Amy Wallace (Wikimedia Commons CC BY-SA 3.0) at
  2. See:
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  7. Source; Smith, Shirley (July 19, 1944). “Letter to the Editor”. Boston Traveler. Retrieved May 25, 2011 – via
  8. Source:
  9. See: and Holahan, C. K., & Sears, R. R. (1995) The Gifted Group in Later Maturity. Stanford University Press: Stanford, CA.
  10. Source:

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