The Prodigy

William Sidis was born in 1898, son of the prominent psychologist Boris Sidis. From the beginning, Sidis’ parents pushed him through intensive education at home, so that he was reading THE NEW YORK TIMES at eighteen months. At three, he was typing and taught himself Latin. At six, he spoke at least seven languages fluently. As the youngest student ever admitted to Harvard, he caused a sensation, lecturing his own professors on four-dimensional bodies and inspiring a wealth of newspaper articles about his amazing range of knowledge.

The demands of celebrity status, however, soon began to take their toll, and Sidis became increasingly withdrawn and antisocial. While in college, he took a vow of celibacy, and to commemorate the occasion he had a medal struck which he thereafter wore suspended from his coat. He did not smoke or drink, had never read the Bible, and considered himself an atheist and socialist.

Largely as a result of press coverage of his eccentricities, upon graduation from Harvard at age sixteen William plunged into seclusion. His behavior became increasingly strange. He took a series of menial jobs and lived in cheap rooming houses. He never married and had few friends. His primary passion in life seems to have been his collection of more than two thousand streetcar transfers. Using his inheritance money, in 1926 he paid a Philadelphia vanity press to publish his book, NOTES ON THE COLLECTION OF TRANSFERS, under a pseudonym. Sidis died in obscurity at the age of forty-six.

Author Amy Wallace avoids heavy psychological analysis of Sidis’ rise and fall, instead presenting a fascinating popular account for the general reader. She skillfully weaves vitality and wit into this very unfortunate story of wasted genius.