Wonder Children

DONALD A. LAIRD August 1 1944

Wonder Children

DONALD A. LAIRD August 1 1944

WHY DON’T we have prodigies any more?” an elderly man asked recently. He had decided that prodigies were a thing of the past, and he was apprehensive—maybe the race was deteriorating. But he need not worry for we still have plenty of prodigies, prodigies just as amazing as any of bygone days.

There is Montreal-born André Mathieu, for instance—a young Canadian who astonished the critics and won fame as a prodigy. He started to improvise on the piano when two and a half and was only 10 when ho stepped to the grand piano in New York’s famed Town Hall and electrified his audience with an astonishingly mature etude composed by him at the age of four. Mathieu appeared with the New York Philharmonic at the age of 11 and now, at the age of 15, has many fine compositions to his credit.

Then there is Merrill Kenneth Wolf, Cleveland. He has just entered Yale University, as a sophomore, after finishing his first college year in a burst of glory at Western Reserve University. This present-day prodigy entered college when he was barely 11 and confidently expects, along with his professors, that he will have earned a doctor of philosophy degree by the time he is 16. That is accomplishment enough, but there is much more to his unusual story.

When he was four months old he spoke in sentences —something most children cannot do before they are three years old. He could read and understand the first grade books by his first birthday. Before he was two years old he could play Liszt compositions on the piano.

He nearly drove public school teachers frantic, because he knew the answers to all their questions, and many others in addition. So his parents, both successful barristers, had to have him educated by private tutors, much to the relief of both teachers and the young prodigy.

He might have entered college sooner, but even at 11 he seemed a wonder child. Although he wore trousers he seemed small in comparison with the older students, yet he is nearly five feet tall—a good height for an 11-year-old.

At Western Reserve University in his native Cleveland he led his classes in mathematics and organic chemistry, and, in addition, created a campus sensation as a pianist.

Complicated mathematics and chemistry are a cinch for him, but so is music, and this is his real love. Already he has composed something like 11 very creditable symphonies. He changed to Yale so he could study with famed Paul Hindemith, professor of the theory of musical composition.

Marvellous as his accomplishments are, wonder child Wolf is still a normal 12-year-old. Black-haired, a bit on the pudgy build, he reads comic magazines with normal boyish interest. For the past year he has been wearing glasses, which give him a serious appearance.

But glasses are rather to be expected. Studies of prodigies reveal that this is about their only weakness. Despite popular legends, prodigies are not sickly frail individuals. Wolf is stocky, not puny. Their health is likely to be better than average, if for no other reason than that they know enough to take care of themselves properly. But they do have a general tendency to have poor eyesight, perhaps because they do a tremendous amount of reading.

Prodigies are not weaklings either. They enjoy taking part in athletic games, although the odds are usually against them. This handicap arises from the fact that they are so much younger—and consequently smaller—than other children in their school grades. Being smaller than others of the same school grade has also helped give rise to the popular belief that prodigies are frail.

There are some amusing results, too, when prodigies are thrown with older people. A prodigy attending the University of Michigan was picked up by a police prowl car, for instance, because he answered the description of a banker’s son who had dressed in his father’s clothes and run away from home. This prodigy, a mere child, was dressed like his full-grown college classmates, and, to the policeman, looked exactly like a small boy who had left home wearing his father’s haberdashery.

The prodigies themselves are often concerned because they look so much younger than their fellows. One prodigy describes how he felt about this when he was 10: “I felt like something in ‘Gulliver’s Travels.’ I was walking around in knee breeches, and all around me were boys who could chin themselves nine or 10 times. I felt so lost I ran away from school for three weeks.” But the really difficult years for prodigies occur when they near 20, as we shall see shortly.

Do these wonder children amount to much in later life—or are they merely a flash in the pan, fool’s gold, as it were? Some are swallowed up by obscurity, or turn out to be petulant and spoiled children. It is easy to spoil them, since parents quite naturally feel they should be protected when associating mostly with older people.

Edward R. Hardy, Jr., for example, was ready to enter college at nine, but since the authorities of Columbia University would not allow his mother to attend classes with him, he waited for three years. When he was 12 and entered college his mother went with him to and from classes, as sort of a bodyguard. Excessive mothering or fathering of prodigies, just at an age when most children are independently trying their own wings, seems to give some prodigies an inability to look after themselves. Of course, this also happens among ordinary children who happen to be beset with a domineering parent.

William James Sidis was a wonder child who became a problem adult. There are some who maintain that the Sidis prodigy was an artificial phenomenon, that his brilliant Russian-born father used a form of hypnotism to make the boy seem like a real prodigy. Anyway, the boy knew the alphabet when he was six months old, could read and write at two. He tore through seven years’ schooling in six months. When he was 11 he astonished Harvard professors by lecturing to them on the fourth dimension. After hearing this learned discourse from the mouth of a mere child, Professor Daniel F. Somstock solemnly predicted that young Sidis would become a great mathematician and leader in the scientific world.

But the Sidis prodigy did not live up to the prediction. He taught in a university for a couple of years, then became a lowly paid routine office worker. He jestingly sums up his condition by saying, “What do you expect of one born on April Fool's Day?”

Another New England prodigy who came to a lacklustre end is Towneley T. French. He graduated from medical college at 20, but had such a tiny medical practice that for years he lived in dingy rooming houses. His wife could not stand the poverty so went to work as an elevator operator to supplement their income. One recent September this Hartford-born prodigy reported to the Boston police that he had killed his wife a couple of days before. After sitting beside her body he got nerve enough to report his act. “I felt,” he told the officers, “that she would be taken care of that way and the state would take care of me for what time I have yet to live.”

Many prodigies are simply swallowed up, as it were, without coming to such a sad end. Winifred Sackville Stoner, Jr., New York City, was such an instance. She had teeth at birth, in 1902. She sat up alone and played with dolls when she was barely three months old. At two she wrote on a typewriter—and other children called her a liar when she told them about this accomplishment. At three she could read both French and English. She was giving public lectures on Esperanto when five, urging that it be used as the universal language to assure world peace. A plump nine-year-old, she entered college accompanied, of course, by her mother. At 12 she could speak nine languages.

A few years ago there was a nation-wide search for this erstwhile infant prodigy. Her relatives knew nothing of her whereabouts, and had to advertise across the country before locating her. The advertisements finally persuaded her to come forth from hiding, “near New York City,” and claim the estate of the late Dr. John Sackville, Kent, England. She appeared just long enough to claim her inheritance, then promptly vanished again, wanting nothing further to do with her relatives or the public she had amazed a decade before.

Sir Ernest MacMillan

But there is another side to the picture. Many prodigies do not become sour on the world, and do live up to their early promise throughout long lives.

Toronto’s Sir Ernest MacMillan is an outstanding Canadian example of a child prodigy who was not lost later in the shuffle. He played the piano at three; could read music before he could decipher the tales in his nursery book and was able to translate staff notations into music long before he learned the alphabet. At the age of 10 he made his musical debut before a large audience in Toronto’s staid Massey Hall. Today he holds many distinguished musical honors, is permanent conductor of the Toronto Symphony Orchestra, and Dean of the Faculty of Music at the University of Toronto.

Johannes C. W. T. Mozart, better known by his shorter name of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, was another musical prodigy, of a family of musical prodigies. But he outshone all his relatives. He wrote a piano concerto which was too difficult for others to play—when he was only five! He toured the symphony halls and courts of Europe as a child pianist, and sat on Madame Pompadour’s lap. When nearly 14 he attended mass at St. Peter’s, and that afternoon wrote down from memory the score of the sacred Miserere. It had been forbidden to record this on paper, but the Pope made an exception of this prodigy and made him a member of the order of The Golden Spur. At 14 Mozart finished his first opera. At Augsburg they gave him a theme in G minor. He improvised a fugue on it in a dozen tempos—then amazed them by playing it backward as a serenade.

In music and love he was a prodigy. But in finance he was a prodigal, a dunce. At his death his estate totalled $38. His wife was ill and unable to attend his funeral. A few days later she walked feebly to the cemetery, asked the caretaker for Mozart’s grave.

“Mozart?” the caretaker asked. “I have not heard of him. He’s not buried here.” But this composer of more than 600 imperishable musical works was buried therein an unmarked grave in the pauper section.

Victor Hugo taught himself to read before he was six, was writing poetry at the age of 10, and at 16 the French Academy publicly crowned his efforts. “L'enfant sublime,” as he was called, became one of the outstanding writers of his day, over his father’s opposition. When Hugo was 19 his father offered him a large bribe if he would leave the foolish occupation of writing. Hugo turned down this plea and continued to produce imperishable literature until he was past 80. Prodigies Sidis and Stoner were pushed into the limelight by parents who basked proudly in reflected glory, but Hugo was a prodigy in spite of his parents.

Marie Sklodovska is another prodigy who enriched the world without being pushed ahead by her parents. She was the youngest daughter of an impoverished Polish intellectual. Marie learned to read at the age of four, and she soon read so much better than her older sisters that her parents had to tell her to stop correcting them in order to maintain peace among the children. At school she was the smallest girl in the class, because she was two years younger than the others, yet she led the class year after year. Her lessons were easy, so she read widely on her own initiative to keep occupied. This wonder child became Marie Curie, who, in her thirties, persisted in her enquiries and discovered the wonder of radium.

Wonder children are so far ahead of teachers and classmates that they give scant attention to the regular lesson assignments. For this reason many have been considered dullards. Sir Walter Scott, for example, had a poor school record because he was forced to study subjects he did not want. But he had learned to read before he was four, and read Shakespeare when he was supposed to be sleeping.

Liebig, the famous chemist, was forced to study literature which he did not like. He was fascinated by science, and his inattention to literature forced him out of school, as a “dullard,” at 15. He studied chemistry on his own initiative in spare moments and laid the foundation for his great discoveries in physiological chemistry.

Learn Without Trying

And prodigies often get kicked out of school because they get into so much mischief. They learn the lessons without trying, and have so much spare time on their hands that youthful mischief becomes inevitable. Sir William Osier, for instance, was asked to leave a small Canadian school because he caused too much trouble. Charles Darwin was expelled because his teachers could not keep him busy. When he was 15 D’Israeli was asked not to return to Dr. Cogan’s school.

Sir Isaac Newton, Sheridan and Goldsmith — all geniuses — were not expelled, but they were so little understood by their mediocre teachers that they were termed dullards. Goldsmith’s teacher, pathetically enough, maintained, as long as she lived, that “there was never so dull a boy”—this of one who was writing good verses at seven, reading Ovid and Horace at eight.

Parents may spoil prodigies and teachers may not understand them, but it is the public which does most to undermine the future of prodigies. The limelight seems to have bad effects on wonder children. When they are, say, eight years old their abilities seem so unusual that they are the centre of admiration. But at 18, and of adult size, for some reason their high abilities no longer cause gasps of astonishment, and they are promptly neglected by the fickle public, which has already turned to some younger prodigy. This public neglect breaks the spirits of many prodigies, for they were fed on such flattery almost from the cradle. This is the critical time, the time when some of them become resentful and sulk away from the public and from work.

Rio Gebhardt, for example, wandered away from his parents when he was only four. After a few hours’ frantic search they came upon a crowd watching a gypsy orchestra perform. The director of the orchestra was their small son! His parents, musicians at the Monte Carlo Theatre, gave him musical training, and he soon toured the world as a child conductor. He went from triumph to triumph. But when he was 16 something happened.

He was then a more skilled conductor than he had been at 10, but a 16-year-old seems less like a wonder than a child of 10. The public ceased to be interested in him. The adolescent Gebhardt vowed to leave music, to take up anything that would keep him away from people. But a few friendly older musicians counselled him, however, and persuaded him to continue in the musical field, not as a child prodigy, but as a conductor in his own right.

Between the ages of 15 and 20 wonder children especially need such helping hands from older persons. And the world owes much to people who have given prodigies a stabilizing hand during those difficult years. Sir Isaac Newton, for instance, would probably have remained a farmer, as he vowed to do after being discouraged by his teachers. A lucky visit from an uncle gave 15-year-old Isaac the encouragement to go on, to leave bitterness behind.

Faraday was out of school at 13, and a bookbinder’s apprentice the following year, apparently his life sentence. He became interested in an article on electricity which he was binding, and sought Humphry Davy for advice on what to read along the then new subject of electricity. It was this friendly, free help from the famous inventor of the Davy lamp that turned the trick for young Faraday.

Many Lost to World

Unfortunately, many prodigies are lost to the world because relatives do not realize the genius that is potential in some children. President Herbert A. Carroll of the Minnesota State Teachers College says this is usually because parents compare their children with adults rather than with other children of the same age.

People also seem to think that prodigies should “look funny.” The dumb are supposed to be the beautiful. But a study, reported in Pedagogical Seminary, however, shows that a “beauty jury” test, given to 20 prodigies, indicated they were better looking than average children.

Are prodigies likely to develop mental peculiarities? Some of them do — but so do many ordinary people. Thirteen per cent of prodigies show nervous signs during childhood—but so do 16% of ordinary children. Two per cent of prodigies stutter-—but 3% of ordinary children have this speech defect.

The prodigies are likely to have more timidity and a greater tendency to worry. They are not cocksure and carefree. But after surveying all the data on the nervousness or mental peculiarities of prodigies, Dr. Harry L. Hollingworth of Columbia University concluded that prodigies were less likely to have nervous troubles than people with average or even inferior abilities.

Is it lopsidedness in abilities that makes some youngsters prodigies? It is a commonplace theory that some special accomplishment means there must be some defects to compensate for it. Actual tests reveal, however, that prodigies have well - rounded abilities. They may have an outstanding interest in one field or another, but have the capacity to master many fields equally well. Prodigy Wolf of Yale, for instance, is most interested in music, but led his class in mathematics and organic chemistry, two subjects far removed from music. And I have profound respect for a man who can lead in organic chemistry, for I came within a hairbreadth of failing the course myself.

The over-all abilities of prodigies is shown by intelligence tests. Prodigies get scores ranging from an intelligence quotient of 150 to 200—while the average child has an intelligence quotient of 100, and a moron 80. Onesidedness would give the prodigies low quotients. The prodigy is more likely to be many-sided, not one-sided.

Do prodigies have some mental faculty, some uncanny power that the rest of us lack? The evidence, as summed up by Dr. Lewis Terman, who has been studying prodigies for the past 20 years, is that they do not have some unique mental power, but simply have a better share of the powers shared by everyone. The difference between a prodigy and a moron is that the moron has less, the prodigy more, of the selfsame mental abilities and powers.

Professor Terman finds that the powers which give the prodigy the greatest advantage are:

Ability to concentrate attention longer. The prodigy can read longer without losing interest, can work longer, play longer. Fie is not as flighty or changeable as other children since he keeps attention where it was started. Others skim the surface, then turn to something else. The prodigy keeps his attention at one thing until he gets at the bottom of it.

Quickness is the second trait which gives the prodigy an advantage. He catches a joke faster, understands directions the first time, memorizes faster. Slow but sure may apply to the tortoise or the oak, but not to prodigies.

Curiosity Outstanding

Curiosity is also an outstanding trait among prodigies. They notice things for themselves, ask endless questions to supplement their observations and reading, try out things. Edison, as a young boy, tried out things. When he read that Seidlitz powders gave off a gas when mixed with water, he got a dull-witted chore boy to take enormous quantities to see if the gas would make him float in the air. Something did happen, but the chore boy did not fly off.

Self-criticism is another marked characteristic among prodigies. They can improve because they criticize their own work or logic. This also keeps them on the modest side, perhaps accounting for some of their timidity. The braggart is not likely to be a prodigy.

Initiative and persistence are also outstanding. Prodigies are not in ruts. Their persistence prods them to complete things, to overcome obstacles. Pierre Curie was willing to quit after the first two years’ search for radium in the old laboratory shed. It was Marie Curie, the prodigy, who had the persistence to keep husband and wife at the task the husband wanted to quit.

Prodigies are partly horn, partly made. Lucky combinations of heredity from both parents helped make Mozart. So did the coaching and encouragement by his adoring parents. Accomplished, though not necessarily famous, parents are more likely to give birth to prodigies. But many spring from parents who seemed ordinary—the right heredity was there, nevertheless.

Relatives commonly fail to recognize the prodigies in their midst. The potential prodigy’s curiosity and initiative and persistence, for instance, may drive relatives to distraction. Parents call these traits a nuisance, thwart the child’s real development.

The world and our schools seem to he geared to ordinary children, not to prodigies. But the prodigies turn out excellently when they are given the stimulation and encouragement. Prize the quickness, curiosity, self-criticism and initiative of the coming generations. Those traits indicate the children who are most likely to carry civilization on to higher levels.