Whose 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 alchemy.

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 causes.

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 born.