Was Einstein Learning Disabled? Anatomy of a Myth

By Thomas, Marlin | Skeptic (Altadena, CA), Winter 2004 | Go to article overview

Was Einstein Learning Disabled? Anatomy of a Myth


Thomas, Marlin, Skeptic (Altadena, CA)


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:

AGS, a company that provides educational materials to teachers, headlines an advertisement with "Even Einstein had a learning disability." (1)

The New York Orton Dyslexia Society markets a T-shirt with the logo "Einstein Edison and Me." (2)

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. (3)

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 teaches thought he was retarded. He wasn't. Albert Einstein had a learning disability." (4)

The American Academy of Ophthalmology has issued a press release entitled "Einstein showed learning disabilities can be overcome." (5)

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." (6)

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. (7)

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 nature 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." (8) The manual identities 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. …

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