were the Greatest Brains in History?
Throughout history, there have been those whose
abilities far exceeded the average person's. Some of
these have been military geniuses, such as Alexander the
Great and Julius Caesar, who reshaped both the
boundaries and the mores of the civilized world. Others
have been literary giants, such as Poe, Shakespeare, and
Dickens, whose work continues to be read today. Others
have specialized in areas such as mathematics, physics,
or medicine. While there will never be complete
agreement as to what constitutes a great mind, most
agree, however, that the greatest have been generalists
rather than specialists.
Leonardo da Vinci and Michelangelo Buonarroti are often
recognized as two of the most outstanding minds in
history, partially because of the diverse nature of
their endeavors. Leonardo achieved fame as a painter,
but he was also an architect, engineer, cartographer,
and anatomist. He designed war machines and bridges,
conducted dissections to learn more about human anatomy,
and conceived the idea of the tank and the helicopter.
He also advanced a basic theory of plate tectonics.
Michelangelo, like da Vinci, was a painter, engineer,
architect, and sculptor. Both men lived in Italy during
the Renaissance, and their relationship was not always
one of mutual respect.
Others who deserve a place on any list of great minds
are not as well known. William James Sidis (1898-1944)
was a child prodigy who developed into something of an
eccentric. By eighteen months, he was reportedly reading
the newspaper. By the age of eight, he had not only
invented his own language but taught himself eight
others, including Russian, Turkish, French, and Latin.
Harvard rejected his father's application to enroll him
at the age of nine, but did accept him at 11. He
graduated cum laude at the age of 16 and within a year
was teaching mathematics at the college level.
Eventually, he abandoned math and concentrated on
writing. Using a variety of pseudonyms, he produced
works on topics such as Native American history,
anthropology, and cosmology. Always a private figure, he
became somewhat reclusive in later life, choosing to
work at menial tasks.
Ibn Sina, known in the western world as Avicenna, was a
Persian scholar who lived from around 980 until 1037. He
was a physician, astronomer, chemist, and geologist.
Some of his texts on medicine were used at western
universities as late as the seventeenth century. He
pioneered neuropsychiatry, describing conditions such as
dementia, mania, melancholia, and hallucination. His
understanding of the formation of mountains led to his
nickname of the "Father of Geology." In astronomy, he
rejected Aristotle's theory that stars were illuminated
by the sun. He was the first to describe the steam
distillation process and among the first to refute
Maria Agnesi was the eldest of twenty-one children, and
was given the task of teaching her younger siblings.
Failing to find a satisfactory mathematics text, she
wrote her own. This may not seem remarkable today, but
she was born in 1718 in Italy, during a time when
education for women was sporadic at best. However, Maria
had mastered French by the age of five, and at the age
of nine she wrote and delivered a speech in Latin that
lasted a full hour, addressing a gathering of the
academia on the rights of women to receive an adequate
education. Shortly thereafter, her father had her enter
philosophical debates with various scholars, which she
conducted in their own native language. She continued to
study mathematics and wrote several volumes on the
subject. Maria received a papal appointment for a chair
of mathematics, becoming the first female university
professor ever appointed. There is debate as to whether
she actually assumed the chair, however. Upon her
father's death, Maria, who had in her youth desired to
enter a convent, devoted her time to philanthropic
When the great minds in history are debated, the names
of Aristotle, Isaac Newton, Galileo, Einstein, Tesla,
and Pasteur are likely to be mentioned as well. As in
most areas, from music to literature, there is no finite
yardstick by which to measure greatness. Yet when one
examines the variety of talent that has existed, perhaps
it is possible that the greatest minds have yet to be