The Legend of the Dull-Witted Child Who Grew Up to Be a Genius

At the age of 26, the patent clerk Albert Einstein emerged with a couple of scientific papers that soon would be considered products of an extraordinary creative mind.

How does that match the image of the young Albert labeled dull, dyslexic, even autistic or schizophrenic, by a considerable number of today's experts and interested parties?

In order to find a reliable answer, we should abstain from repeating, and perpetuating, all the dubious conjectures spread decades after Einstein's death, and rely, first of all, on the contemporaneous, original sources to determine whether any of these labels actually apply to the real Einstein.

In that context, a widely held belief regarding Einstein’s handedness can immediately be rebutted. As photos show him holding a pen in his right hand, seizing a paper with the right hand and playing the violin like a right-hander, and as no evidence was found of him being or originally having been left-handed, one may take for granted that he was a right-hander. All this being said, little, though, is known about Albert Einstein’s early years.

In the recollections of the family recorded by Einstein’s younger sister, Maja, in 1924, Albert appears as a calm, dreamy, slow, but self-assured and determined child. Another three decades later, Einstein himself told his biographer, Carl Seelig, that “my parents were worried because I started to talk comparatively late, and they consulted a doctor because of it.”

The grandparents, visiting two-year-old Albert, did not observe any developmental particularities and, in a letter to other family members, expressed enthusiasm about the grandson's good behavior and “drollige Einfälle” (funny or droll ideas or vagaries). Yet the reputed handicap of late talking became part of the family legend and is confirmed by Maja. The same family legend, though, reports that, at the age of 2 ½ years, when his newborn sister (a Mädle) was shown to the boy, Albert, obviously expecting a toy to play with, could already verbalize his disappointment: “But where are its wheels (Rädle)?” Might one assume that the “comparatively late” talking reflects the anxiety of an overambitious mother rather than the child actually having an identifiable problem?

As a matter of fact, the boy was, and remained, a reluctant talker for quite some years, and, until the age of about seven, used to repeat his sentences to himself softly, a habit which contributed to the impression he might be somewhat dull.

After one year of homeschooling, Albert was sent to primary school, entering second grade already at age 6 ½. He may not easily have accommodated himself to the school’s expected mindless obedience and discipline aimed at instilling authoritarian civic virtues. Unable – or unwilling - to provide quick automatic responses, the boy was considered only moderately talented by his teachers. Yet at the end of his first school year his mother could proudly relate that Albert's report card was splendid and his second term marks again put him at the top of his class. If the stigma of the "bright under-achiever" - "The Einstein Factor" - had been justified at any time, now it was no more the case. The fact that, at the age of 9 ½, Albert was accepted to the competitive Luitpold-Gymnasium, disproves any observable learning disabilities. Had his grades in primary school not been above average, his entrance into the Gymnasium would not have been possible.

While the social milieu of his Gymnasium class, as well as the subject matter, were significantly more sophisticated and challenging than at the primary school, the teaching style continued to resemble the style Albert had despised already during his first school years. Learning facts and texts by rote was highly prized, while independent and creative thinking was perceived as undermining the teacher's respect. As it is the case with most pupils, Albert did not take the same interest in all subjects, but did advance well in general; in particular he advanced in subjects he favored even doing so far beyond his age.

In his later years, Einstein repeatedly pointed out that memorizing words, texts, and names caused him considerable difficulties. Yet, if one regards the pupil’s alleged “learning disability” in the context of his distaste for the teaching style which he experienced as military drill, and of his own mental preoccupations, then a psychological block seems a much more plausible explanation than medical “dyslexia”. Moreover, not only did Albert advance from grade to grade without having to repeat a grade, even in the subject of Greek – with which an unsympathetic teacher predicted that he would never get anywhere - Albert received final marks of 2 out of 4, with 1 as the highest mark.

But, yes, he flunked the entrance exam at the Zurich Polytechnic. Albert left his Munich Gymnasium in the middle of the seventh of nine obligatory high-school years, at the age of 15. When, with special permission, he presented himself for the entrance exam at the Zurich Polytechnic in the following autumn, he was still one and a half years short of the required age to enter that college. Also, as German and Swiss school curricula differ substantially, his knowledge, for instance, of French and of some general subjects definitely did not meet Swiss high-school diploma standards. So it was the circumstances that ‘handicapped’ Einstein, rather than his own personal inabilities. More noteworthy than the fact that he failed the exam is that his knowledge in mathematics and physics impressed his examiner in such a way that he invited the boy to his college lectures even before Albert was accepted as a regular student.

To provide evidence of a “learning disability” it has been argued that Einstein's special talents in particular subjects were linked to an exceptionally strong deficiency in other areas. Einstein’s own words, too, appear to substantiate his impediment in languages, and as early, seemingly impartial evidence of his weakness in languages the above-cited exam is often mentioned. An attempt to learn Hebrew, Einstein is quoted in 1923 as saying, would be unproductive work for him. And from numerous reports of his American years we know that until the end of his life German was the only language he felt comfortable with.

But in the entrance exam to the Polytechnic, that he took after only half a year of French lessons at the Gymnasium, Albert had to compete with Swiss graduates who had at least six years of French study. And the statement with respect to the Hebrew language was the realistic evaluation of a 43-year-old scientist who had no use for that particular language and, therefore, no motivation to learn it. Ten years later, the American immigrant was well able to acquire the necessary knowledge to communicate with his new compatriots. Would anyone be surprised that at the age of fifty-five he did not reach the same high level in English as he did in his mother tongue, and had, another decade later, to admit that he “cannot write in English, because of the treacherous spelling?”

If dyslexia is defined as a neurological condition which causes problems translating language to thought or thought to language and therefore presents difficulties with reading, writing and spelling, speaking or listening, Einstein can certainly not be diagnosed with this defect.

The strongest argument that Einstein was not dyslexic is that he mastered the German language perfectly and his ability to express himself in writing and speech showed high skills of comprehension, discrimination and precision.

A different aspect may be Einstein’s social behavior. It prompted some specialists to place him among those afflicted with autism, or its milder form, a developmental disorder called Asperger’s Syndrome. Children suffering from AS are characterized as aloof and emotionally detached; their socially inappropriate behavior and their extreme egocentricity prevent them from interacting successfully with their peers. They appear to have little empathy for others and to lack social or emotional reciprocity. Other symptoms include motor clumsiness, non-verbal communication problems, repetitive routines and stereotyped mannerisms and the idiosyncrasy for loud or sudden noises. One of the most interesting aspects of their personality is the "perseveration," an obsessive interest in a single object or topic to the exclusion of any other.

Some of the characterizations of AS described in the paragraph above actually apply well to the young Albert as we know him from Maja’s and Max Talmey’s recollections.

Both Maja and Talmey describe a boy who took little interest in boisterous games and, in general, in his peers, a boy who would concentrate patiently on elaborate constructions with building blocks or playing cards, delve into books and tricky arithmetic problems or play the violin. A sort of glass pane, as he called it many years later, separated him from his fellow human beings. Had such "social phobia" then been classified as a personality disorder, and had his parents and doctors felt the need to ‘heal’ the boy by making him conform to some norm, Albert might not have become Einstein.

Self-sufficiency, autonomy, a certain shyness and an extraordinary power of concentration, are traits that still characterized the adult scientist. He never felt comfortable with the obligation to deliver addresses and speeches and to mingle with people. The man who attracted women "like a magnet attracts filings", who was not afraid of having more than one love affair alongside his marriage and who stuck by his friends and lovers "in his way", this man nevertheless considered himself a lone wolf: "I never belonged to my country, my home, my friends, or even my immediate family, with my whole heart." Music was the portal into the place where Einstein sealed his emotions in order to avoid dealing with interpersonal relationships.

Although he did not expressly refer to himself when once he suggested that young scientists assume the function, for instance, of a lighthouse guard, we know from many similar statements that the adult Einstein relished solitude, be it in his study, be it on a sailing boat or elsewhere.

Yet, he had adjusted himself, to a certain degree, to the requirements of society. It is this “certain degree” that today’s experts are focussing on. While the mature Einstein was obviously a high-functioning member of his society, he nevertheless displayed some peculiarities that did not really fit in. Such peculiarities, however, were tolerated by his fellow men, even considered irrelevant, and not abnormal, thus not pathological, thus not in need of a cure. His temporary states of absent-mindedness and forgetfulness were amusedly looked at as the flip-side of his concentration on problems with which he was preoccupied. No one would have insinuated that forgetting his keys or not remembering the names of persons with whom he had little connection, constituted symptoms of a disease.

His autonomy, fostered by his mother from an early age, was considered paradoxically both as a sign of maturity and as the fortunate retention of childlike curiosity and playfulness. Since such independence obviously constituted one of the prerequisites of his exceptional creativity, its unconventional or inconvenient aspects served as a target only for those who pursued political aims. These advocates of a different political philosophy, fascists and partisans of "German Physics" would have been jubilant to learn from today’s experts that the creation of the theory of relativity could have only come from a schizophrenic mind capable of viewing things from the outside.

The boundary between socially tolerated "deviant" behavior on the one hand and pathological conduct on the other hand is re-defined by each society and in each era. Behavioral disorders exist only in relation to a concrete historical situation; developmental anomalies are deviations from a norm set at a given time by a distinct social group. Moreover, the same evidence can be construed in very different ways by different experts.

Einstein was no doubt an exceptional person. He was highly gifted and acquired early in his life the ability to exploit his talents. The stimulating milieu of his childhood, an ambitious mother who supported the son's self-reliance, and a counterbalancing and comforting father provided the environment where the child could develop his own personality. The “Creator and Rebel” eventually found a way of reaching self-actualization in the framework of his society.

Who dares to determine ex post facto, whether Einstein's genius is a result of autistic traits or of schizophrenic features? As long as the experts base their judgments on outright erroneous assertions about his childhood deficiencies, on misunderstandings regarding his performance at school, or on trivia of the kind of "He let his hair grow long and did not comb it. He wore old clothes and did not care about style", those judgments can hardly pass for reliable scientific expertise. As long as the same symptom is cited as an evidence of schizoid traits by one and as proof of being an autism spectrum disorder by another expert, one ought rather trust a third expert who frankly admits that while a pre-mortem diagnosis of a disorder with no known biologic markers would seem difficult enough, definitive post-mortem diagnoses are clearly impossible.

Barbara Wolff & Hananya Goodman

Maja Winteler-Einstein’s biographical sketch of her brother can be found inThe Collected Papers of Albert Einstein vol.1, Princeton 1987.

The medical student Max Talmey was a regular guest at Albert Einstein’s parent’s house between ca. 1888 and 1894. His report on Einstein’s early years was published as an appendix to Max Talmey: The Relativity Theory Simplified and the Formative Period of Its Inventor, New York 1932.

Among those who discuss Einstein’s deviant features from a scientific point of view are:

Simon Baron-Cohen, Professor of Developmental Psychopathology at the University of Cambridge, see for example: “Einstein and Newton showed signs of autism” New Scientist 30 April 2003

Anthony Storr, English psychologist known for his psychoanalytical portraits of historical figures, see for example: Dynamics of Creation (New York: Ballantine Books, 1993)

Temple Grandin, Professor of Animal Science at Colorado State University and successful adult with high-functioning autism.