Most famous scientists and mathematicians were undeniably recognisable as bright sparks from their early years, but here’s a post for a friend whose fab, funny, clever little girl is feeling downhearted at the moment. The folk mentioned below were always really smart, but their genius didn’t always fit in with the education system they found themselves in. So here are two geniuses who were bad at school, and one who everyone thinks was, but sort-of wasn’t really.
1) Alan Turing probably most famous for his work during WWII on cryptography, Turing lived until he was nine in the care of a family friend in Hastings. His later school reports didn’t reflect his intelligence and the fascination that he had from a young age with science and the natural world. According to turing.org.uk he was bottom of the class in English and his teacher wrote “I can forgive his writing, though it is the worst I have ever seen, and I try to view tolerantly his unswerving inexactitude and slipshod, dirty, work, inconsistent though such inexactitude is in a utilitarian; but I cannot forgive the stupidity of his attitude towards sane discussion on the New Testament.” Turing was second from the bottom of the class in Latin “He is ludicrously behind“. His maths and science teachers were happier with his progress but still noted “His work is dirty”. He was so poorly regarded that he was almost prevented from taking the exams which are equivalent to the modern GCSEs. Pretty surprising for someone who went on to produce pivotal works in mathematics and computing, even predicting the future development of the internet.
2) Sir John Gurdon, winner of The Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine 2012. According to nobelprize.org, in a private school intelligence test at the age of eight Gurdon was asked to draw an orange ‘He started drawing the stalk by which the orange would hang from a tree, reasoning that an orange would not exist in space. The teacher tore up the piece of paper and reported to his parents that he was mentally subnormal and would need special teaching. The teacher meant to say, draw a circle’. Later, at Eton, when he started to be taught science at the age of 15 he received a horrendous report from his Biology teacher. The report covered features of his first term of science such as a test score of 2 out of 50, and the teacher’s opinion that “he will not listen, but will insist on doing his work his own way”. He was placed in bottom place of the 250 students in his year and as a result wasn’t allowed to continue to study Science of any kind as it would be “a shear waste of time, both on his part, and of those who have to teach him”. He did end up studying Zoology at Oxford, through sheer effort of nepotism on the part of his family, but had to take a year to learn basic Biology with a private tutor before he could start. It was the start of a long and illustrious career in Science, although he still refers to himself as a ‘non-intellectual’.
3) And the one who sort-of wasn’t: Albert Einstein has a reputation for having been a failure at school, but according to ABC Science, as far as test scores go, this was due to an error in reporting. The grading system was reversed in his last year at school, so a top grade of ‘1’ became the lowest mark, and the lowest mark of ‘6’ became the top. Anyone looking at his grades would interpret them under the new system and come up with a whole load of fails, instead of the true top marks. He did however seem to regard his success as being despite the school system he was in at the time, rather than because of it, teaching himself geometry at the age of 12 and being quoted as writing that “It is, in fact, nothing short of a miracle, that the modern methods of instruction have not yet entirely strangled the holy curiosity of inquiry”. According to The American Museum of Natural History he ‘wilted under what he called a rigid atmosphere’ at school and even at University ‘found lectures and tests intolerable’.
So, while we all should try our best in whatever educational environment we find ourselves in, just a ten minute search of the internet will find plenty of folk who didn’t always come top of every class but went on to do great things. Do let me know if you have a favourite genius with bad grades!
Alan Turing: http://www.turing.org.uk/scrapbook/wondrous.html