Was Einstein Learning Disabled: Anatomy of a Myth

Thomas Marlin. Skeptic. Volume 10, Issue 4. 2004.

Many organizations that promote the interests of individuals with learning disabilities claim that Einstein had a learning disability, and this claim has become widely accepted. A review of biographical sources, however, provides little or no evidence to support this assertion. The claim derives its force not from facts but from a powerful belief-that the greatest among us suffer from some impairment-and from an equally powerful desire to enhance the status of a marginalized group by including within it exceptional individuals.

The Claim

You can read about Einstein’s learning disabilities everywhere:

  1. AGS, a company that provides educational materials to teachers, headlines an advertisement with “Even Einstein had a learning disability.”
  2. The New York Orton Dyslexia Society markets a T-shirt with the logo “Einstein Edison and Me.”
  3. On its Web page for children, the Center for Disease Control asserts that Einstein could not speak fluently until after his ninth birthday and that his parents thought he was mentally retarded.
  4. The Connecticut Association for Children with Learning Disabilities, under the headline, “Some Kids with Learning Disabilities Do Okay for Themselves,” 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.”
  5. The American Academy of Ophthalmology has issued a press release entitled “Einstein showed learning disabilities can be overcome.”
  6. An advertisement sponsored by the United States Fidelity and Guarantee Company lists the Theory of Relativity as one of “The Things We’ve Been Taught By Kids With Learning Disabilities.”
  7. In the Einstein Syndrome, Thomas Sowell casually repeats the claims that Einstein was pathologically late in acquiring speech and that he was considered mentally retarded.

A Google search for “Einstein learning disability” produces dozens of references to his having a learning disability.

Difficulties with Diagnoses

The identification of a learning disability in a living person is a difficult activity that frequently yields uncertain results, and the diagnosis of a long deceased person is even more problematic. In addition to not being able to administer tests specifically designed to identify learning disabilities, there is an incongruence between the evidence that is preserved and the criteria that characterize a learning disability because the evidence was collected without regard to those criteria. The issue of learning disabilities, for example, was not present in late 19th century Germany, when Einstein was in school, and therefore no attention was paid to preserving information specifically related to them. Because of these difficulties, retrospective diagnoses are by their very naaire dubious and should be advanced only if overwhelming evidence exists to support them.

Definitions of Learning Disabilities

In order to evaluate the claim that Einstein was learning disabled, we need to have some commonly accepted definitions of what a learning disability is. There are three definitions: clinical, legal, and social. According to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders Text Revision (DSM-IV TR), “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.” The manual identifies specific consequences of those disabilities: demoralization, low self-esteem, poor social functioning, and difficulties with employment. It also notes that learning disorders must be distinguished from normal variations in academic development. A variation does not necessarily constitute a disability.

The Rehabilitation Act of 1973 and the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 established legal definitions of disabilities. The former 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 “has a physical or mental impairment which substantially limits one or more of such person’s major life activities.” The act lists some major life activities: “caring for one’s self, performing manual tasks, walking, seeing, hearing, speaking, breathing, learning, and working.” The Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 essentially reiterates the above.

In addition to clinical and legal definitions, far less formal definitions of learning disabilities based on socially derived norms of behavior necessarily apply. These norms suggest that a person with a learning disability has difficulty in school or in reading, writing, or speaking. They carry no prescriptive criteria; rather, they are grounded in a judgment that something is amiss with the person’s capacity to process information.

History of the Claim

Although Victor and Mildred Goertzel10 provide the earliest source for the claim that Einstein was learning disabled, L. J. Thompson provides its most historically substantive basis, and his article is cited by others in the field, even by those who dispute it. He includes Einstein in his study almost as an afterthought. After strenuously advancing the proposition that Auguste Rodin, George S. Patton, Thomas Alva Edison, and Woodrow Wilson exhibited unambiguous signs of learning disabilities, he prefaces 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.” He also states that, in the case of Einstein, “the search for more details has not been followed.”

Thompson does, however, provide some generally, but not universally, accepted biographical evidence-Einstein’s relatively late demonstration of speech and some of his supposed academic difficulties. He is, however, hesitant and speculative. He writes, “Albeit Einstein apparently had some language difficulty in his youth.” He quotes from an undated interview with his son: “He was even considered backward by his teachers. He told me that he was mentally slow, unsociable and adrift forever in his foolish dreams.” Thompson also writes that Einstein’s parents thought that he was dull, and he speculates that Einstein had difficulty maintaining work after graduation from college (he went through three teaching positions in two years) because of language-based disabilities.

Kimberly and Howard Adelman broadly critique retrospective diagnosis and dispute Thompson because the nature of the evidence presented is scientifically unsatisfactory and because there are plausible alternative explanations. They are 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.” The Adelmans also detail the difficulties that attend the definition of learning disabilities and their diagnosis. In addition, they state that “a survey of Einstein biographies reveals nothing to support the claim.” In the nearly twenty years that have passed since that statement, little has changed. Biographers present scant, if any, support for the claim that Einstein was learning disabled.

P. G. Aaron and his co-authors rebut the Adelmans and refashion Thompson’s claim that 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 bases his defense of Thompson on his identification of “certain characteristics traditionally associated with developmental dyslexia.” Since these characteristics are traditional and associational, and are thus indirect, they cany less evidentiaiy weight than immediate characteristics. He does not, however, support the claim regarding Einstein. The omission suggests that the case for Einstein is weaker than that for the others.

Biographical Bases for the Claim

The case for Einstein can be organized into a series of specific and general claims:

  • He was delayed in speaking;
  • He was delayed in learning to read;
  • He was dyslexic;
  • He had academic difficulties in school;
  • He had difficulties with employment because of learning disabilities.

The sources for evaluating the bases for the claim are a biographical essay by his sister Maja Winteler-Einstein, family letters preserved in Einstein’s collected papers, Einstein’s own recollections, records of his grades in school, and some samples of his writing. Einstein’s sister, for example, recalls: “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.” The fear of physical deformity was compounded by the proximity of the deformed area to the child’s brain, which would suggest intellecaial deformity. In a few weeks, however, the skull assumed a normal shape. The anecdote, which makes no reference to any behavior on Einstein’s part that would suggest mental problems, says more about family fears than it does about Einstein’s intellectual capacity.

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.” Such delays, however, do not by themselves provide evidence 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.

Einstein’s biographers present evidence regarding his acquisition of speech. Abraham Pais, citing Winteler-Einstein, notes that there were early fears that Einstein might be backward because of the unusually long time before he could speak. Banesh Hoffmann and Helen Dukas quote from a letter written by Einstein in 1954, the year before he died: “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.”

Pais states that these parental fears were unfounded, and he uses 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.” This suggests that acquisition of speech was equated with using complete sentences, not with merely using words correctly. P. Frank, expressing a minority among biographers, indicates that even as late as nine Einstein lacked fluency of speech, and R. Jacobson asserts that Einstein had life-long difficulties in learning and mastering foreign languages. Despite this assertion, Einstein did master English. Jacobson also cites evidence that Einstein’s thought processes started in a pre-linguistic mode and that he saw language as a barrier. His interpretations support the notion that Einstein had learning differences but not a learning disability.

Not all biographers, however, accept that Einstein acquired speech abnormally late. Denis Brian writes that Einstein was a late talker but not nearly as late as he recalled. He cites part of a letter, written when Einstein was two years and three months old, from Jette Koch, his maternal grandmother, that Banesh Hoffmann and Helen Dukas also cite: “we talk again and again of his [Albert Einstein’s] droll ideas.” Brian interprets the “droll ideas” as documentation of speech prior to age three for, he reasons, ideas in a child that young can be recognized only through speech.

Winteler-Einstein writes that “he developed slowly in childhood, and he had such difficulty with language that those around him feared he would never learn to speak.” This fear proved baseless, for, as his sister writes, “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?'” Since this incident predates her birth, she presumably uses 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 into an inanimate object. In addition, Brian writes that throughout his life Einstein maintained that “he consciously skipped baby babbling, waiting until he could speak in complete sentences.” Brian undermines the notion that Einstein was pathologically late in acquiring speech.

Maja Winteler-Einstein provides other evidence regarding an abnormality: his habit of rehearsing sentences under his breath before uttering them. She frames her description of that practice, and thus dilutes its abnormality, with a treatment of Einstein’s early display of superior cognitive skills. She depicts him as an arbiter of disputes among other children, and she interprets this quality as a sign “that his ability to think objectively had developed early.” She places 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.” The habit suggests that Einstein needed the repetition 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, life-long need for such reassurance. Since genuine learning disabilities do not resolve themselves, its disappearance indicates that the habit was not a learning disability.

Erik Erikson scrutinizes whether the slow acquisition of speech and his repeating of sentences was a matter of defect, difference, diffidence, or defiance. He concludes that they represent diffidence and defiance, and he thus implicitly rejects the claim that Einstein had a language-based speech defect. He does, however, write that “Albert’s speech development, when noted down only on its own terms, could indeed be suspected to be symptomatic of a developmental detect.” This statement is self-evidently tentative and speculative.

Delayed Acqidsldon of Reading

From the time he was ten until he was fifteen, Einstein, under the informal tutelage of a family friend, read books on popular science and even philosophical works by Immanuel Kant. The friend recounted that, although Einstein was only thirteen years old, Kant’s works seemed clear to him. This observation suggests a considerable ability in language, not a disability. Moreover, the biographers Banesh Hoffmann and Helen Dukas, Abraham Pais, and Ronald Clark produce no evidence that Einstein could not read when he was eight, as claimed by the Connecticut Association for Children with Learning Disabilities.

Dyslexia

Although the term “dyslexia” is sometimes associated with Einstein and although it does have popular currency as a marker for problems in decoding and in producing written language, the term does not appear in the DSM-IV, which discusses general problems in writing and reading without using that term. Here we will use the definition of “dyslexia” by Aaron and his co-authors, who adhere to a difference rather than a dysfunctional model for dyslexia. They identify dyslexia as extreme variations of normal brain functioning, and they cite written spelling errors, written syntax errors, difficulties in the sequential processing of information, and a superiority in simultaneous processing of information as evidence for it.

If Einstein had been dyslexic, there would be evidence of it in his writing. There would be, for example, persistent problems with spelling and with word choice. There is some evidence of a problem with orthography, but it is scant and unconvincing. Anna Beck and Peter Havas, the editors and translators of the English edition of Einstein’s collected papers, describe his spelling problem: “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.” 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 language-based learning disability, the absence does suggest that Einstein 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 was dyslexic. Ronald Clark dismisses the notion that dyslexia caused 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.”

The best evidence for a general problem with writing is Einstein’s writing itself. The earliest writing that Einstein composed on his own initiative elates from sometime between 1891 and 1895, when he was twelve to sixteen years old. (The writing is contemporaneous with his “reading of popular scientific books” that lead him to “the conviction that much in the stories of the Bible could not be ttue,” 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. He proved, employing words exclusively, a theorem in solid geometry and made a comment on it. The sophistication of the language used suggests a command of words in 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 a mathematical statement by Leibnitz. In addition, in 1895, at the age of sixteen, he wrote “On the investigation of the state of ether in a magnetic field,” his first scientific paper, an exercise of two pages. These writings strongly suggest a mature command of the language. Their quality argues against any disability regarding written language production.

Einstein, however, produces evidence that he had some processing difficulties with regard to listening and writing: he claims not to have had a systematic way of taking notes in class. Although there seems to have been no particular consequence to this supposed difficulty, Einstein here does describe a difficulty common to individuals with language processing disorders. He also expresses test anxiety that is consistent with that of a learning disabled person: “I would feel under such strain that I felt … that I was walking to the guillotine.” The anxiety, however, is hardly unusual, and it does not rise to the level of a disability.

Academic Difficulties

Einstein acknowledges that he had difficulties in school, and he is especially attentive to his difficulties with memorization. Since the dominant pedagogy in late 19th-cenauy Germany emphasized memorization, his difficulty was a problem, but there is little evidence that it impaired his learning. Einstein also asserts that he was reprimanded in school for asking too many questions and that he found learning difficult.46 he also claims to have failed botany, zoology, and French, but school records do not support this.

His sister’s sketch provides a mixed picture of Einstein’s performance in school. She indicates that he did not perform with distinction. He entered primary school at seven and, with regard to mathematics, he was thorough, but “the boy was considered only moderately talented precisely because he needed time to mull tilings over and didn’t respond immediately with the reflex answer desired by the teacher.” She also writes that he could solve difficult word problems, even though he made errors in calculation.

Abraham Pais produces no evidence to support the claim that Einstein’s teachers thought that he was retarded. He even states that “the widespread belief that he was a poor pupil is unfounded.” Pais is especially strong in his refutation of the myth that Einstein was slow in school. He reiterates Winteler-Einstein by describing him as “a reliable, persistent, and slow-working pupil who solved his mathematical problems with self-assurance though not without computational errors. he did veiy well.” A letter from his mother dated August 1, 1886, when Einstein was seven, 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.”

Moreover, his performance in school suggests that he could read before his eighth birthday. From the time he was nine until he was fifteen, Einstein attended the Luitpold Gymnasium, the equivalent of an American secondary school. Pais writes, “In all these years he earned either the highest or the next-highest mark in mathematics and in Latin.”

Hoffmann and Dukas, in contrast, do provide some anecdotal evidence to support the notion that Einstein was not a stellar student. They quote from a letter that Einstein composed in 1955, the last year of his life: “My principal weakness was a poor memory and especially a poor memory for words and texts.” In the same letter, however, Einstein writes that he was ahead of the school curriculum in mathematics, physics, and philosophy. That Einstein’s recollection is recorded so long after the fact weakens its persuasiveness.

Winteler-Einstein is the earliest source of a much repeated anecdote. She writes of a teacher telling the young Einstein that he would never be successful, but its edge is softened by the context that she provides: “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.” As with the evidence regarding spelling, the anecdote is local and limited, and it cannot reasonably be taken to represent a thoughtful, dispassionate assessment by the teacher. Her 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.” Hoffmann and Dukas also cite an unnamed teacher of Greek who told Einstein, “You will never amount to anything.” Clark attributes a similar sentiment to a headmaster, “he’ll never make a success of anything.” It is unclear if these are different individuals. It is also unclear how often such statements were made to students. They would be more indicative of a problem if they could be shown to be rare.

Brian writes that “Teachers thought him dull witted because of his failure to learn by rote,” but he cites no specifics for this claim. He also notes that Einstein was deliberate in his oral responses in class and that he repeated his answers to himself silently. The evidence portrays an introverted, distant student, but it does not support the claim that his teachers thought him retarded.

Other evidence counters any notion that Einstein was considered retarded. In a letter written in 1895, Albin Herzog, the director of the Federal Polytechnical Institute, refers to Einstein as a “so-called ‘child prodigy.'” Although the quotation marks suggest doubt, Herzog still acknowledges that Einstein is being advanced as a prodigy and that the designation has to be acknowledged.

The Gymnasium routine called for students to learn algebra and geometry at age thirteen, but Einstein devoted a vacation to covering the entire Gymnasium mathematics syllabus independently. He derived his own proofs for theorems, and he even discovered an original proof for the Pythagorean theorem. Einstein himself supports the notion that he learned mathematics independently, including differential and integral calculus, from age twelve to sixteen. Even allowing for some exaggeration, his maturity in mathematics argues against his having had a learning disability in that area. That he acquired a knowledge in mathematics by reading also argues against his having a reading disability.

According to his sister, he continued to learn mathematics independently. “He did so well at his autodidactic preparations that at the beginning of October 1895, at the age of only 16 1⁄2, 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.” The institute advised his parents to have him attend a Swiss secondary school. He would have almost certain admission the following year, even though he would be six months under the prescribed age of eighteen. He entered the school in the autumn of 1896.

The available grade reports also present a picture of, at worst, a moderately successful student. For example, Einstein’s collected papers transcribe the “Entrance Report of the Gewerbeschule, Aargau Kantonsschule,” dated October 26, 1895. Although the report indicates some problems with French and chemistry, it reveals no substantive academic difficulty, even though it reports that he was “provisionally accepted.” Once admitted to the Aargau Kantonsschule, Einstein performed well. Although the October 1895 report of the school 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 histoiy, physics, descriptive geometiy, and technical and artistic drawing. The final grade report from Aargau, dated Autumn 1896, which awarded grades on a six point scale, with six being the highest, reveals excellent performance in algebra (six), geometry (six), and physics (five to six). Even his performance in chemistry and in naairal history (he scored a five in each) was above average. His lowest score (three) was in French, and that was no worse than average. His performance in French does not support a claim that he had difficulty acquiring foreign languages.

The 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 it 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 in 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 an indication of academic deficiency. Its entrance examination covered political and literary history, German, French, mathematics, and the sciences. Pais indicates 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. Clark, however, cites Einstein’s own testimony that he did not fully prepare for the examination as the fundamental reason for his failure. Clark also notes that Einstein was about a year and a half younger than the normal student sitting for the examination. Einstein himself comments 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.”

Difficulty With Employment

As indicated above, Thompson considers it plausible that Einstein’s difficulties in maintaining employment early in his career (within two years he held three different positions) were caused by expressive language problems. Brian details some of the difficulties that Einstein had with employment, but he indirectly disputes Thompson by noting three factors that caused those difficulties: his outspokenness, anti-Semitism, 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 no “substantial handicap to employment,” to use the language of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973.

Learning Differences

Although there is little to be said in favor of the claim that Einstein was learning disabled, there is justification for asserting that he learned and thought differently from other individuals. Although there is no warrant for stating that this difference was disabling, idiosyncratic modes of learning and thinking can account for the anomalies chronicled above. Since there is as yet no nomenclature to classify the differences that Einstein exhibited, terming them “disabilities” may serve as a dramatic but inaccurate means of conveying his cognitive peculiarities. In his Autobiographical Notes, Einstein reveals how unconventional his view of thinking was. He writes of thinking in terms of images and as the end point of a process that begins with free association. Two elements stand out in his discussion. One is that thinking lies at the end of a nonverbal progression. Thinking 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 also distinguishes between “the totality of sense experiences” and “the totality of the concepts and propositions that are laid down in books.” The connection between the two sets is “purely intuitive, not itself of a logical nature.” he uses the phrase “the essentially constructive and speculative nature of all thinking,” 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” is an inappropriate term, “difference” captures the sense of Einstein’s thinking.

Conclusion

Given the meager basis for the claim that Einstein was learning disabled, one has to wonder why it has become so accepted. Part of the reason is the encouragement it gives all of us to know that even geniuses have shortcomings. The claim also enhances the prestige of learning disabled individuals. Any marginalized group benefits from having one of its members be a stellar figure in cultural history. These may be salutary, but the consequence of claiming that Einstein was learning disabled without historical evidence is harmful. It distorts the historical record and it questions the credibility of other claims regarding the learning disabilities of prominent persons.