Thomas Marlin. Journal of Learning Disabilities. Volume 33, Issue 2. Mar/Apr 2000.
Historical figures are often subjected to retrospective analyses that diagnose a disease or condition that was either not yet discovered or not associated with them during their lifetimes. These analyses proceed despite all the difficulties attendant to diagnoses of deceased persons, and they are often advanced to explain either major achievements or the cause of death. Albert Einstein, for example, has been the subject of such a retrospective, one asserting that he had a learning disability. This article examines that claim, briefly traces its history, and evaluates its merits.
Because disputing the claim that Einstein had a learning disability could be interpreted as an attack on persons with learning disabilities, a few words need to be said about the motives for examining the claim. The purpose of this article was to answer the historical question, “Is there sufficient evidence to assert that Albert Einstein had a learning disability?” I answer this question as best I can by examining available historical evidence and drawing judicious inferences from that evidence. The answer is not calibrated to satisfy any constituency. An affirmative answer clearly would enhance the social prestige of persons with learning disabilities, but a negative response would not diminish their humanity. Including Einstein among persons with learning disabilities without sufficient warrant, however, would distort the truth and thereby do a disservice to Einstein and to those with learning disabilities.
Definitions of Learning Disabilities
The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders-Fourth Edition (DSM-IV; American Psychiatric Association, 1994) establishes a clinical definition of learning disabilities: “Learning Disorders are diagnosed when the individual’s achievement on individually administered, standardized tests in reading, mathematics, or written expression is substantially below that expected for age, schooling, and level of intelligence” (p. 46). The manual goes on to articulate behaviors associated with learning disabilities, and it enumerates specific consequences of those disabilities. It mentions, for example, that “demoralization, low self-esteem, and deficits in social skills may be associated with Learning Disorders” (p. 47). It also identifies difficulties with employment and social adjustment as consequences of learning disorders and cites a 40% school dropout rate for children and adolescents who have those disorders. DSM-IV also notes that learning disorders must be distinguished from normal variations in academic development.
The Rehabilitation Act of 1973 and the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 established legal definitions of disabilities. The Rehabilitation Act of 1973 uses the term handicapped individual to refer to a person who “has a physical or mental disability which for such individual constitutes or results in a substantial handicap to employment” and who “(i) has a physical or mental impairment which substantially limits one or more of such person’s major life activities, (ii) has a record of such impairment, or (iii) is regarded as having such an impairment” ((sec)706(7)(B)). The act goes on to enumerate some “major life activities”: “caring for one’s self, performing manual tasks, walking, seeing, hearing, speaking, breathing, learning, and working” (Subpart A, (sec)104.3). The Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 modified the above in two minor aspects: It omitted the part of the definition that focused on employment, which is implicitly subsumed under the category of major life activity, and it substituted the term disability for handicap (Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990,(sec) 33).
In addition to clinical and legal definitions, which are characterized by analytical and descriptive precision, other, far less formal definitions of learning disabilities that are based on socially derived, but unarticulated, norms of behavior and evaluation inform this discussion. These definitions consider a person to have a learning disability who has general difficulty in school, or, specifically, difficulty in reading, writing, or speech. They carry no prescriptive criteria; rather, they are grounded in a judgment that something is unconventional about the person’s capacity to process information. By their very nature, such definitions are in constant flux, and they lack precision. Nonetheless, a social judgment that an individual has a learning disability is important in evaluating the claim regarding Einstein.
Retrospective Diagnosis of Learning Disabilities
The identification of a learning disability in a living person, who is subject to direct and repeatable clinical examinations, often yields equivocal results. The vast majority of such diagnoses are tempered by reservations over the provisional nature of such diagnoses. The diagnosis of a learning disability in an historical figure is, necessarily, a more difficult-if not an impossible-task. In addition to the difficulty of not being able to administer to the person tests specifically designed to identify learning disabilities, there is an almost inevitable incongruence between the evidence that is preserved in memoirs and school reports and the criteria for a learning disability because the evidence was amassed without regard to those criteria. For example, to families and teachers in late-nineteenth-century Germany, when Einstein was in school, the notion of learning disabilities was unheard of, and therefore no attention was paid to preserving information regarding them. The preservation of any such information would have been wholly accidental. Because of these constraints, retrospective diagnoses should be advanced only with caution and with due acknowledgement of their inherent limitations.
A number of organizations that promote the interests of persons with disabilities claim that Albert Einstein had a learning disability. For example, AGS, a company that provides educational materials to teachers, headlined a 1991 advertisement with the statement, “Even Einstein Had a Learning Disability.” The New York Orton Dyslexia Society (1994) markets a T-shirt with the logo “Einstein, Edison and Me.” On its home page on the World Wide Web, the Learning Disabilities Association of Virginia (1997) places Einstein at the head of its list of prominent persons the association claims had learning disabilities. The Connecticut Association for Children with Learning Disabilities (1994) advances with considerable detail the claim that Einstein had a learning disability. Under the headline “Some Kids with Learning Disabilities Do Okay for Themselves,” the association writes: “Years ago there was a three year old child who couldn’t learn to talk. At eight he still couldn’t read. His teachers thought he was retarded. He wasn’t. Albert Einstein had a learning disability.”
The claim has also achieved currency among groups that have no direct connection with learning disabilities. The American Academy of Ophthalmology (1997), for example, issued a press release titled “Einstein showed learning disabilities can be overcome.” An advertisement sponsored by the United States Fidelity and Guarantee Company (1987), a large insurance firm, lists the theory of relativity as one of “The Things We’ve Been Taught By Kids With Learning Disabilities.”
None of these groups asserting the claim provide any evidence for it, nor do they cite any source as a reference. In the preparation of this article, the author has requested such documentation from each of the groups mentioned above, and none has responded.
History of the Claim
Although M. Goertzel and V. Goertzel (1962) articulated the earliest version of the claim, Thompson (1971) provided its most historically substantive basis, and his article is cited by others in the field, even by those who dispute it (e.g., Adelman & Adelman, 1987). Thompson stated that his own work emphasized the “more hopeful or brighter aspect of the problem” (p. 34) of reading disabilities.
Although Thompson (1971) provided support for his claim, he included Einstein in his study almost as an afterthought, and that inclusion was a tentative hypothesis rather than a firm assertion. After strenuously advancing the proposition that such individuals as Auguste Rodin, George S. Patton, Thomas Alva Edison, and Woodrow Wilson exhibited unambiguous signs of learning disabilities, he prefaced his short treatment of Einstein with a disclaimer: “The material is presented briefly for the reader’s consideration without any claim of a final diagnosis” (p. 42). Thompson also stated that, with respect to Einstein and some other historical figures, “the search for more details has not been followed” (p. 42).
Thompson (1971) provided some generally, but by no means universally, accepted biographical evidence-Einstein’s relatively late demonstration of speech, and some of his putative academic difficulties. His discourse, however, is more hesitant and speculative than decisive and definitive. His statement that “Albert Einstein apparently had some language difficulty in his youth” (p. 42) is manifestly tentative and vague. He quoted from an undated interview with Albert Einstein, Jr.: “‘He was even considered backward by his teachers. He told me that he was mentally slow, unsociable and adrift forever in his foolish dreams”‘ (p. 42). Thompson also wrote that Einstein’s parents thought he was dull, and he speculated that Einstein had difficulty maintaining work after graduation from college (he went through three teaching positions in 2 years) because of language-based disabilities.
K. Adelman and H. Adelman (1987), in a broad critique of retrospective diagnoses of learning disabilities in general, deemed Thompson’s (1971) evidence scientifically unsatisfactory and noted that there were plausible alternative explanations for that evidence. Adelman and Adelman were especially critical of the “readiness of some in the field to cite any learning problem noted in the life of a historical figure as an instance of learning disability” (p. 270). The low threshold for a diagnosis of LD runs counter to good clinical practice, especially as that practice is articulated in DSM-IV, and to prudent historical judgment. Adelman and Adelman also detailed the difficulties that attend the diagnosis and definition of learning disabilities. With regard to Einstein, Adelman and Adelman wrote, “A survey of Einstein biographies reveals nothing to support the claim” (p. 277).
Although Adelman and Adelman’s conclusion was sound, there is some biographical evidence to support the claim that Einstein had a learning disability. That evidence, however, is anecdotal, not clinical, and was reported long after the events described. Such evidence is subject to a tendency to mold memory to fit a narrative line or to create a dramatic irony. As Erikson (1982) noted, such data are hard to evaluate because they can be part of folklore.
Aaron, Phillips, and Larsen (1988) rebutted Adelman and Adelman (1987). They refashioned Thompson’s (1971) claim that Thomas Edison, Woodrow Wilson, Hans Christian Andersen, and Leonardo da Vinci exhibited learning disabilities by using a matrix of biographical records and cognitive, neuropsychological, and biological characteristics. Aaron et al. based their defense of Thompson on their own identification of “certain characteristics traditionally associated with developmental dyslexia” (p. 537). Because these characteristics are traditional and associational, and thus are indirect, they carry less evidentiary weight than immediate characteristics. Aaron et al. do not, however, support the claim regarding Einstein, from which one might infer that the case for Einstein is weaker than that for the others.
Biographical Bases for the Claim
The claim regarding Einstein can be organized into a series of specific and general claims: (a) that he was delayed in speaking, (b) that he was delayed in learning to read, (c) that he was dyslexic, (d) that he had academic difficulties in school and (e) that he had difficulties with employment due to learning disabilities. In the following discussion, the biographical bases for each of the various claims are evaluated.
The sources for evaluating the bases for the claim were a biographical essay by Einstein’s sister (Winteler-Einstein, 1987), family letters preserved in Einstein’s collected papers (Einstein, 1987), Einstein’s own recollections (Bucky, 1992), and records of his grades in school and some samples of his writing, both of which are also found in his collected papers. The first source has been frequently cited by biographers and, because of its prominence, its treatment of Einstein merits some comment.
Maja Winteler-Einstein portrays Einstein as a gifted child, but she avoids glorifying him. She does provide anecdotes that relate to the claim regarding learning disabilities, but those anecdotes form a pattern that undermines the support for the claim. Einstein’s family detected an abnormality in him, expressed fear that he would live a stunted life, and then were relieved when his development allayed those fears. For example, “at his birth his mother was shocked at the sight of the back of his head, which was extremely large and angular, and she feared she had given birth to a deformed child” (Winteler-Einstein, 1987, p. xviii). The fear of physical deformity was compounded by the proximity of the deformed area to the child’s brain, which would no doubt suggest intellectual deformity. In a few weeks, however, the skull assumed a normal shape. As will be seen later, other anecdotes fit this pattern of apprehension followed by relief.
Her biographical sketch, moreover, has a defensive quality. Winteler-Einstein (1987) normalizes some events and characteristics that on the surface suggest, if not a learning disability, at least a difference in learning style. The lack of evidence for a learning disability from other sources, however, suggests the reasonableness of her position.
Delayed Acquisition of Speech
The claim regarding Einstein’s late acquisition of speech is relevant, at least indirectly, to the question of whether or not he had a learning disability because “developmental delays in language may occur in association with learning disorders” (DSM-IV, 1994, p. 47). Such delays, however, are not by themselves probative of a learning disability. Moreover, determining what exactly demonstrates acquisition of speech presents a difficulty. From a strictly developmental perspective, acquiring speech means consistently using a sound, any sound, to represent something. The sound does not have to correspond to anything in any language. Parents, however, most typically have a stricter meaning: For them, speech means properly using a recognizable word from the child’s native language. Thus, parents are apt to mark the acquisition of speech later than developmental psychologists.
Biographers of Albert Einstein, although not formally addressing claims of learning disabilities, have presented evidence regarding his acquisition of speech. Pais (1982), employing WintelerEinstein as a source, noted that there were “early apprehensions that the child might be backward because of the unusually long time before it could speak” (p. 36). Hoffmann and Dukas (1973) quoted from a letter written by Einstein in 1954: “‘My parents were worried because I started to talk comparatively late, and they consulted the doctor because of it. I cannot tell how old I was at the time, but certainly not younger than three”‘ (p. 14).
Pais (1982) stated that these parental fears were unfounded, and he used Einstein’s own recollections regarding his acquisition of speech: “When he was between two and three, he formed the ambition to speak in whole sentences. He would try each sentence out on himself by saying it softly. Then, when it seemed all right, he would say it out loud” (p. 36, quoting E. G. Straus). This suggests that acquisition of speech was equated with using complete sentences, not merely with using words correctly. Frank (1947), expressing a minority among biographers, indicated that even as late as age 9, Einstein lacked fluency of speech, and Jacobson (1982) noted Einstein’s lifelong difficulties in learning and mastering foreign languages. Jacobson also cited evidence that Einstein’s thought processes started in a prelinguistic mode and that he saw language as a barrier. His interpretations support the notion that Einstein had learning differences, but they do not lend credence to the claim of a learning disability@
Not all biographers, however, accept that Einstein acquired speech abnormally late. Brian (1996) wrote, “Albert was certainly a late and reluctant talker, but not nearly as late as he recalled” (pp. 1-2). He cited part of a letter, written when Einstein was 2 years 3 months old, from Jette Koch, Einstein’s maternal grandmother: “We have fond recollections of little Albert. He was so dear and good, and we talk again and again of his droll ideas.” In contrast to Hoffmann and Dukas (1973), who uncritically accepted the anecdotal testimony regarding Einstein’s late acquisition of speech and thus placed the “droll ideas” outside of speech, Brian interpreted these ideas as evidence that Einstein was able to speak prior to age 3. He reasoned that ideas in a child can be recognized only through speech.
Winteler-Einstein (1987) provided evidence regarding Einstein’s acquisition of speech. According to her account, “he developed slowly in childhood, and he had such difficulty with language that those around him feared he would never learn to speak” (p. xviii). This fear proved baseless, for, as his sister wrote,
When the 2.5-year-old was told of the arrival of a little sister with whom he could play, he imagined a kind of toy, for at the sight of this new creature he asked, with great disappointment, “Yes, but where are its wheels?” (Winteler-Einstein, 1987, P. xviii)
As this incident predated her birth, Winteler-Einstein presumably used her parents as the source. If the account is accurate, the question that Einstein asked suggests a precocious grasp of syntax, even as it evinces either a frail grasp of anatomy or a desire to render his sister an inanimate object. In addition, Brian (1996) wrote that, throughout his life, Einstein maintained that “he consciously skipped baby babbling, waiting until he could speak in complete sentences” (p. 1). Brian thus undermined the notion that Einstein was pathologically late in acquiring speech.
Winteler-Einstein (1987) provided other evidence regarding an abnormality in Einstein’s speech: his habit of rehearsing sentences under his breath before uttering them. She frames her description of that practice with a treatment of Einstein’s early display of superior cognitive skills, thereby diluting the habit’s abnormality. She depicts him as an arbiter of disputes among other children and interprets this quality as a sign that “his ability to think objectively had developed early” (p. xviii). Einstein’s sister placed her account of his rehearsing sentences within the context of his cognitive abilities: “His early thoroughness in thinking was also reflected in a characteristic, if strange, habit. Every sentence he uttered, no matter how routine, he repeated to himself softly, moving his lips. The odd habit persisted until his seventh year” (Winteler-Einstein, 1987, p. xviii). Despite his sister’s attempt to make the habit seem unexceptional, Einstein’s habit seems pathological, though not disabling. it suggests that Einstein needed the rehearsal of his utterances in some fashion to reassure himself. That the habit did not persist beyond his seventh year indicates that there was no permanent, lifelong need for such reassurance. Because genuine learning disabilities do not resolve themselves, whatever the habit was, it was not a learning disability.
Erikson (1982), while forthrightly evading the issue of dyslexia, scrutinized whether Einstein’s slow acquisition of speech and repetition of sentences was a matter of defect, difference, diffidence, or defiance. He concluded that they represented diffidence and defiance and thus implicitly rejected the claim that Einstein had a language-based speech defect. Erikson refrained from diagnosing Einstein’s early difficulties with language as dyslexia because he has no expertise in the field of learning disabilities. He did, however, write, “Albert’s speech development, when noted down only on its own terms, could indeed be suspected to be symptomatic of a developmental defect” (p. 157). Erikson’s statement is tentative and speculative, and it does not address the anomaly of a defect that does not persist beyond the formative years.
Delayed Acquisition of Reading
Evidence regarding Einstein’s acquisition of the ability to read derives from his experience with both formal and informal education. Because the former relates to the claim of poor performance in school as well as to reading ability, it will be detailed in a later section.
From the time he was 10 until he was 15, Einstein, under the informal tutelage of Max Talmud (a family friend), read, among other things, books on popular science and the philosophical works of Immanuel Kant (Pais, 1982). Talmud (cited in Hoffmann & Dukas, 1973) recorded his impressions of the young Einstein: “I recommended to him the reading of Kant. At that time he was still a child, only thirteen years old, yet Kant’s works, incomprehensible to ordinary mortals, seemed clear to him” (p. 24). This observation suggests not a disability but a considerable ability in language. Moreover, Hoffmann and Dukas, Pais (1982), and Clark (1971) produced no evidence that Einstein could not read when he was 8, as claimed by the Connecticut Association for Children with Learning Disabilities (1994).
Although the term dyslexia is sometimes associated with Einstein, and although it does have popular currency as a marker for problems in decoding and producing written language, it does not appear in DSM-IV In this article, the definition of “dyslexia” follows Aaron et al. (1988), who adhered to a difference rather than a dysfunctional model for dyslexia. Using a phenomenological approach, they identified dyslexia as extreme variations of normal brain functioning, citing written spelling errors, written syntax errors, difficulties in the sequential processing of information, and a superiority in simultaneous processing of information as evidence for its existence in an individual.
If Einstein were dyslexic, there would be evidence of it in his writing. There would be, for example, persistent problems with spelling and word choice (DSM-IV, 1994). There is some evidence of a problem with orthography, but, as with much of the evidence supporting the claim that Einstein had a learning disability, it is scant and unconvincing. Beck and Havas (1987), the editors and translators of the English edition of Einstein’s collected papers, described the contours of a spelling problem that crops up in Einstein’s writings and their editorial policy toward it: “Misspelled names of persons and places (quite frequent, particularly in Einstein’s letters and even in his scientific papers) are routinely corrected without comment; other misspellings, of course, could not be maintained in translation” (p. xiv). That the spelling errors are predominantly found in proper names and are found especially in personal correspondence suggests a local rather than a global problem with orthography. Moreover, the spelling of proper nouns is subject to more variation than other words. There is no evidence that the spelling problem was so severe that it was an impediment to communication, which suggests the absence of a disability. Although the absence of a severe spelling problem does not necessarily preclude the possibility that Einstein had a languagebased learning disability, it does suggest that he had a command of language inconsistent with a writing disorder.
Several writers have addressed the issue of dyslexia as it relates to Einstein, but none have asserted that he had dyslexia. Clark (1971) dismissed the notion that dyslexia was at the root of Einstein’s supposed late acquisition of speech and his oral hesitancy: “Far more plausible is the simpler situation suggested by Einstein’s son Hans Albert, who says that his father was withdrawn from the world even as a boy” (p. 10), which supports Erikson (1982).
The best evidence for a general problem with writing is Einstein’s writing itself, especially writing that has not been subjected to editorial revision or peer review. The earliest writing that Einstein composed on his own initiative (rather than in response to a school or work assignment) dates from sometime between 1891 and 1895, when Einstein was 12 to 16 years old. (The writing is thus contemporaneous with his “reading of popular scientific books,” which led him to “the conviction that much in the stories of the Bible could not be true” [Einstein, 1979, p. 31, which suggests both a mature reading ability and the capacity to draw conclusions independently. The reading, coupled with the writing, suggests an active mind engaged without difficulty in thought conditioned by language.) Einstein proved, employing words exclusively, a theorem in solid geometry and wrote a comment on it (Einstein, 1987). The sophistication of the language used suggests a command of words for expressing mathematical concepts, and the theorem and its associated comment display no insecurities in language. During that same period, he made an equally sophisticated and detailed comment on Leibnitz’s application of “ad-infinitum continuing division of a finite quantity to matter” (Einstein, 1987, p. 4). In addition, in 1895, at the age of 16, he composed “On the Investigation of the State of Ether in a Magnetic Field,” his first scientific paper, an exercise of two pages (Einstein, 1987). These writings strongly suggest a mature command of the language as well as of the mathematical and scientific material presented. Their quality argues against any disability regarding written language production.
Einstein, however, produced evidence that he had some processing difficulties with regard to listening and writing; he claimed not to have had “an orderly and systematic way of putting down in writing everything that you hear in class” (Bucky, 1992, p. 26). Although there seems to have been no particular consequence to this supposed difficulty, what Einstein described is a difficulty common to individuals with language processing disorders.
He also expressed test anxiety that is consistent with that of a person with LD: “I would feel under such strain that I felt, rather than going to take a test, that instead, I was walking to the guillotine” (Bucky, 1992, p. 94).
Difficulties in School
Einstein acknowledged that he had difficulties in school (Bucky, 1992, p. 26). He was especially attentive to his difficulties with memorization (a task he found onerous; Bucky, 1992, pp. 24, 26, 94-96). Because the dominant pedagogy in late-nineteenth-century Germany emphasized memorization, Einstein’s difficulty was a handicap; however, there is little evidence that it impaired his learning and performance except minimally. Einstein also asserted that he was reprimanded in school for asking too many questions (Bucky, 1992, p. 26) and that he found learning difficult (Bucky, 1992, p. 27). He also claimed to have failed botany, Zoology, and French (Bucky, 1992, p. 25), but the extant school records do not support that memory.
With regard to Einstein’s performance in school, his sister’s sketch provides reason to believe that he did not perform with distinction. He entered primary school at age 7, and with regard to mathematics, he was thorough, but “the boy was considered only moderately talented precisely because he needed time to mull things over and didn’t respond immediately with the reflex answer desired by the teacher” (Winteler-Einstein, 1987, p. xix). She also wrote that “he always confidently found the way to solve difficult word problems, even though he easily made errors in calculation” (Winteler-Einstein, 1987, p. xix).
Pais (1982) produced no evidence to support the claim that Einstein’s teachers thought he suffered from retardation. He even stated that “the widespread belief that he was a poor pupil is unfounded” (p. 38). Pais was especially strong in his refutation of the myth that Einstein was slow in school. He described Einstein as “a reliable, persistent, and slow-working pupil who solved his mathematical problems with self-assurance though not without computational errors. He did very well” (p. 37). A letter dated August 1, 1886, when Einstein was 7, from Paulina Einstein, his mother, to Fanny Einstein, one of his grandparents, buttresses the notion that Einstein performed well in school: “Yesterday Albert got his grades, once again he was ranked first, he got a splendid report card” (Beck & Havas, 1987, p. 3).
Moreover, Einstein’s performance in school suggests that he could read before his 8th birthday. From the time he was 7 until he was 15, he attended the Luitpold Gymnasium, the German equivalent of an American secondary school. Hausel (cited in Pais, 1982) stated, “In all these years he earned either the highest or the next-highest mark in mathematics and in Latin” (p. 37).
Hoffmann and Dukas (1973), in contrast, did provide some evidence to support the notion that Einstein was not a stellar student at Luitpold. They quoted from a letter that Einstein composed in 1955: “My principal weakness was a poor memory and especially a poor memory for words and texts” (pp. 19-20). (In the same letter, however, Einstein wrote that he was ahead of the school curriculum in mathematics, physics, and philosophy.)
Winteler-Einstein (1987) is the earliest source of a much-repeated anecdote. She wrote of a teacher telling the young Einstein, in essence, that he would never be successful, but the words’ bite was softened by the context: “The clear, rigorous logical structure of Latin suited his talents, but Greek and modern foreign languages were never his forte. His Greek professor, to whom he once submitted an especially poor paper, went so far in his anger to declare that nothing would ever become of him” (WintelerEinstein, 1987, p. xx). As with the evidence regarding spelling, the anecdote was local and limited and cannot reasonably be taken to represent a thoughtful, dispassionate assessment by the teacher. His sister’s account, however, is undercut in some of its particulars by Einstein’s own recounting: “I remember in Munich having my Latin teacher tell me that I would never be able to do anything that would make any sense in this life” (Bucky, 1992, p. 26). Hoffmann and Dukas (1973) also cited an unnamed teacher of Greek who told Einstein, “You will never amount to anything” (p. 20). Clark (1971) attributed a similar sentiment to a headmaster-“He’ll never make a success of anything” (p. 10)but it is unclear if these were different individuals.
Brian (1996) wrote that “teachers thought him dull witted because of his failure to learn by rote” (p. 3), but he cited no specifics for this claim. Brian also noted that Einstein was deliberate in his oral responses in class and that he repeated his answers to himself silently (p. 3). The evidence portrays an introverted, distant student, but it does not support the claim that his teachers thought him retarded.
Other evidence exists to counter any notion that Einstein was considered to have retardation. In a letter from Albin Herzog to Gustav Maier on September 25, 1895, Herzog, the director of the Federal Polytechnical Institute, in responding to a request to have Einstein leave his current school and apply to the institute, referred to Einstein as a “so-called ‘child prodigy”‘ (Einstein, 1987, p. 7). Although the quotation marks suggest skepticism, Herzog still emphasized that Einstein was being advanced as a prodigy and that that designation should be acknowledged.
The Gymnasium routine called for students to learn algebra and geometry at age 13, but Einstein devoted a vacation to covering the entire Gymnasium mathematics syllabus independently (Winteler-Einstein, 1987, p. xx). He derived his own proofs for theorems, and he even discovered an original proof for the Pythagorean theorem (Einstein, 1979; Winteler-Einstein, 1987). Einstein himself supports the notion that he learned mathematics independently, including differential and integral calculus, from age 12 to age 16 (Einstein, 1987, p. 13). Even allowing for some exaggeration, his maturity in mathematics argues against his having had a learning disability in that area, and that he acquired knowledge in mathematics by reading also argues against his having a reading disability.
According to his sister, Einstein continued to learn mathematics independently and
did so well at his autodidactic preparations that at the beginning of October 1895, at the age of only 161/2, he passed the entrance examination to the Federal Polytechnical School in Zurich with the best outcome in mathematical and scientific subjects but inadequate results in linguistic and historical ones. (Winteler-Einstein, 1987, p. xxii)
The institute advised his parents to have him attend a Swiss secondary school, where he would almost certainly be granted admission the following year, even though he would be 6 months under the prescribed age of 18. He entered the school in the autumn of 1896.
Einstein’s available grade reports also present a picture of, at worst, a moderately successful student. They do not suggest, whatever learning differences Einstein may have possessed, a student struggling to master academic material. For example, Einstein’s (1987) collected papers transcribe the “Entrance Report of the Gewerbeschule, Aargau Kantonsschule” (p. 7), dated October 26, 1895. Although the report indicates some problems with French and chemistry on his part, it reveals no substantive academic difficulty, even though he was only “provisionally accepted.” Once admitted to the Aargau Kantonsschule, Einstein performed well. Although the October 1895 school report mentions a continued need for private instruction in French, chemistry, and natural history, as do the minutes of a teachers’ conference, he performed well in his other subjects, which included history, physics, descriptive geometry, and technical and artistic drawing (Einstein, 1987). The final grade report from Aargau, dated Autumn 1896, which awarded grades on a 6-point scale, with 6 being the highest (Pais, 1982), reveals excellent performance in algebra (6), geometry (6), and physics (5 to 6; Einstein, 1987). Even his performance in chemistry and natural history (he scored a 5 in each) was above average. His lowest score (3) was in French, and that was no worse than average.
Because a learning disability, by its very nature, reveals itself and its intractability in a learning environment, a student’s school record is one of the best indicators of the presence or absence of a learning disability. The record in Einstein’s case reveals no severe academic problem and suggests mastery rather than inability. The school record, in short, provides strong evidence that he did not have a learning disability. At best, it supports the conclusion that he was stronger in mathematics and physics than in other areas.
The one documented instance of academic failure on Einstein’s part-his poor performance on the admission examination to the Federal Institute of Technology (ETH) in Zurich-does little to support a case for a learning disability. ETH enjoys an international reputation for academic excellence that predates Einstein’s interest in the school. Its entrance requirements are commensurately demanding. Not gaining admission is not necessarily an indication of academic deficiency. Its entrance examination covered such subjects as political and literary history, German, French, mathematics, and the sciences (Pais, 1982). Pais indicated that Einstein studied for the examination on his own and that he did well in mathematics and the sciences. His failure was in botany and languages, both of which required memorization (Hoffmann & Dukas, 1973). Clark (1971), however, asserted that that is not the entire truth, and he cited Einstein’s own testimony that he did not fully prepare for the examination as the fundamental reason for his failure. Clark also noted (but not as a reason for his failure) that Einstein was about a year and a half younger than the normal student sitting for the examination. Einstein himself, in a letter to Caesar Koch, an uncle, commented on the age issue: “I should now enter the Polytechnikum in Zurich. This matter encounters considerable difficulties because I should be at least two years older for it” (Einstein, 1987, p. 7).
Difficulty with Employment
As indicated earlier, Thompson (1971) considered it plausible that Einstein’s difficulties in maintaining employment early in his career (within 2 years he held three different positions) were caused by his expressive language problems. Brian (1996) detailed some of the difficulties Einstein had with employment, but he indirectly disputed Thompson’s position by proposing three factors that would have caused those difficulties: Einstein’s outspokenness, the prevalence of antiSemitism, and his second-class status as a naturalized Swiss citizen. Whatever his problems with sustaining employment early in his career, they did not persist, for Einstein was steadily employed for the rest of his life. There was thus no “substantial handicap to employment” (Rehabilitation Act of 1973).
Although little can be said in favor of the claim that Einstein had a learning disability, there is justification for asserting that he learned and thought differently from other individuals. The difference was not disabling or pathological, but it could have accounted for the anomalies chronicled above. Although there is yet no nomenclature to classify the differences that Einstein exhibited (it may be a syndrome without a name), terming them disabilities is a dramatic but inaccurate means of conveying his cognitive peculiarities.
In his Autobiographical Notes, Einstein (1979), defining thinking in terms of an organizing element, revealed how unconventional his view of thinking was:
When, on the reception of sense impressions, memory pictures emerge, this is not yet “thinking.” And when such pictures form sequences, each member of which calls forth another, this too is not yet “thinking.” When, however, a certain picture turns up in many such sequences, then-precisely by such return-it becomes an organizing element for such sequences, in that it connects sequences in themselves unrelated to each other. Such an element becomes a tool, a concept. I think that the transition from free association or “dreaming” to thinking is characterized by the more or less preeminent role played by the “concept.” It is by no means necessary that a concept be tied to a sensorily cognizable and reproducible sign (word); but when this is the case, then thinking becomes thereby capable of being communicated. (p. 7)
Two elements stand out in this passage. One is that thinking lies at the end of a nonverbal progressionthinking does not have to be verbal. The other is that thinking and communicating are distinct. The latter suggests a condition experienced by many persons with verbal disabilities: They struggle to communicate something that is nearly palpable to them but that resists verbal formulation. Einstein’s sensitivity to the distinction between thinking and communicating indicates that he may have struggled with just that difficulty of rendering thought into words.
Einstein (1979) continued with his description of thinking as primarily nonverbal: “Our thinking goes on for the most part without use of signs (words) and beyond that to a considerable degree unconsciously” (p. 4). Moreover, he discussed his fascination with a compass in terms of “the unconscious world of concepts (efficacy produced by direct ‘touch’)” (p. 9). He even discussed his appreciation of geometry in terms of tactility and unconsciousness.
Einstein went on to make a distinction between “the totality of sense experiences” and “the totality of the concepts and propositions that are laid down in books” (Einstein, 1979, p. 11). The connection between the two sets is “purely intuitive, not itself of a logical nature” (p. 11). He used the phrase “the essentially constructive and speculative nature of all thinking” (p. 21), which implies that thinking is severed from an external reality The implication from these passages is that, for Einstein, thinking occurred in a realm only occasionally connected to verbal structures. This form of thinking would necessarily lead to some collisions between him and the established, language-saturated educational structure. Although “disability” seems to be an inappropriate term, “difference” captures the sense of Einstein’s thinking status.
Probative evidence may yet emerge to demonstrate or to conclusively refute the proposition that Einstein had a learning disability. One source of such evidence would be the Einstein archives housed at Princeton University. A detailed examination of Einstein’s writing, composed in his own hand, would help solidify the argument one way or the other. Some of those papers appear in Dukas and Hoffmann (1979), and these do not lend credence to a disability involving either English or German. These papers, however, have been subjected to some editorial revision: “Some of the items were sent out in impeccable English, and these we have quoted verbatim. Other items were issued in less idiomatic English, and in presenting them we have made occasional minor changes while preserving the Germanic flavor that gives them charm” (Dukas & Hoffmann, 1979, p. 3). Only a firsthand examination of the actual papers themselves could determine if the editors have, consciously or unconsciously, revised the documents to remove traces of a learning disability.
Another avenue of investigation would be the physiological examination of Einstein’s brain, which was preserved by Thomas Harvey (Brian, 1996). Although analyses of his brain to date have not revealed any physiological evidence of a learning disability, three-dimensional X-rays, CAT scans, and biochemical and molecular analyses of receptors and synapses could (though the likelihood is minuscule) yield evidence that could be compared with that obtained by conducting similar examinations of the brains of persons who have received undisputed diagnoses of learning disabilities. The presence in Einstein’s brain of features exclusively identified with persons with learning disabilities would lend some support to the claim that he had a learning disability. That support, however, would have to be weighed against the absence of observable behaviors associated with learning disabilities in his adult life.
The available biographical evidence does not support the claim that Einstein had a learning disability; in fact, much of that evidence, in that it suggests precociousness, directly disputes that claim. The claim does not meet the clinical standard set forth in DSM-IV, for Einstein was not subjected to “individually administered, standardized tests” (p. 46). He did not exhibit the characteristics that DSM-IV associates with persons with learning disabilities: demoralization, low self-esteem, deficits in social skills, difficulties with employment, and failure to complete school. Furthermore, the claim does not meet the legal standards articulated earlier: He displayed no evidence of having a “substantial handicap to employment,” nor were his major life activities impaired (Rehabilitation Act of 1973); moreover, there is little evidence that in his lifetime he was “regarded as having such an impairment” (Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990). Even using a more lax social definition based on anecdotal reports of behavior does not result in a reasonable claim for a learning disability. No evidence has surfaced to suggest that throughout his life Einstein displayed any of the symptoms that would meet a social definition of a learning disability. Although he did display some frailties with regard to spoken language, those frailties were not of such a magnitude as to be classified as differences or disabilities.
Given the meager basis for the claim, the question arises, “Why has the claim lived so long and become so current?” Part of the reason is the encouragement it gives all of us to know that “even geniuses can suffer from learning disabilities” (Adelman & Adelman, 1987, p. 270). That Einstein had a learning disability could inspire all of us and motivate students with disabilities to perform better. The claim also would enhance the prestige of such students in the eyes of the rest of the population-any marginalized group benefits from having one of its own be a stellar figure in cultural history. These are salutary consequences, but the consequences of claiming that Einstein had a learning disability without sufficient historical evidence are deleterious. It distorts the historical record and calls into question the credibility of other claims regarding the learning disabilities of prominent persons.
Due to the paucity of evidence supporting the claim that Einstein had a learning disability, and due to the abundance of evidence disputing such a claim, the claim should be withdrawn until convincing evidence supports it.