Girl Prodigies: Some evidence and some speculations – Dr Lynn T. Goldsmith
Wolfgang Mozart, Felix Mendelssohn, Yehudi Menuhin: each of these three musicians was arguably the most talented and touted prodigy of his time. These “wunderkinder” were celebrities in their own day, and if the passing of time may have blunted some of the intense, even personal interest that often dogged these young boys, their names are nonetheless still familiar ones today. But far fewer of us recognize the names of Maria Anna Mozart, Cäcilie Mendelssohn, or Hephzibah Menuhin. They were sisters of these musical marvels, and also musical prodigies themselves.
For a time, they each shared the limelight with their brothers (and in the case of the Menuhins, with a third sibling, Yaltah), but their musical careers – and their public presence – were not sustained as were their brothers’. There are undoubtedly many reasons for this, reasons which range from the breadth and depth of their individual talents to the cultural milieux in which these talents were exercised. The fact remains that, despite their own prodigious talents, they have largely faded into obscurity: their own accomplishments have paled, to be noted almost exclusively by those chronicling the lives of their brothers.
The study of the prodigy has, for better or for worse, been largely the study of the talent of young boys. Of the handful of works which have sought some psychological understanding of prodigies and their extraordinary abilities (Baumgarten, 1925; Feldman with Goldsmith, 1986: Revesz, 1970), only four of the 16 children studied were girls, and all of these were the subjects of a single researcher (Baumgarten, 1925). Baumgarten is to be applauded for having uncovered an equal number of girls and boys to examine. Her ability to find a relatively large number of girls arose, in part, from the criteria she used for subject selection, which had as much to do with media visibility as it did with the actual quality of the child’s work.Click to read further
Biographical works, too, are skewed heavily in the direction of boys (Davenport, 1966; Hildesheimer, 1983; Magidoff, 1952; Montour, 1977; Slenczynska 1957; Wallace, 1986; Werner, 1978: Wiener, 1953). The extraordinary accomplishments of young boys have, by and large, captured public attention most often, and as a result, have formed the backbone of our knowledge about child prodigies. Yet no responsible student of giftedness would argue that girls cannot – or do not – display extraordinary talent, often at a very young age. And in fact, there are a number of reports of girl prodigies in the popular literature, but they are spotty, and often brief and anecdotal. This article is intended to even the score a bit by reflecting on some of the extraordinary accomplishments of young girls and speculating about why these achievements have been less successful in capturing the interest and imagination of the public.
What defines a child prodigy?
The lack of sustained and systematic study of the phenomenon of the prodigy has meant that there is no consensus about what exactly constitutes early prodigious achievement. The criteria for identifying child prodigies have largely been intuitive ones which have focused in one way or another on the fact that a child displays an unusually mature talent at an exceptionally young age. This lack of consensus makes it somewhat difficult to evaluate and compare reported cases, particularly historical ones, where little in the way of specific descriptions of the child’s actual abilities has survived.
Yet despite the lack of consensual definition of early prodigious achievement, there is little doubt that the phenomenon or the prodigy is a relatively regularly occurring phenomenon. Children with extreme talents have probably been part of the human experience ever since people began to notice individual differences in ability, and that the phenomenon of the child prodigy has been recognized specifically as a special occurrence for centuries. In fact, the original meaning of the term “prodigy” referred to a range of portentous and awesome phenomena which were “out of the usual course of nature,” of which the exceptionally able child was but one example (Feldman with Goldsmith, 1986). Perhaps, over the centuries, the phenomenon of the child prodigy continues to defy understanding, even as other seemingly inexplicable events were assimilated into man’s developing knowledge of the natural world. As seers abandoned efforts to read omens, animal entrails or atmospheric disturbances, the term “prodigy” narrowed to refer to a phenomenon that still defied adequate explanation – the child who could master a skill as if an adult.
Though there has been recognition of children with extreme abilities for thousands of years, the question remains to the kind and degree of abilities that have been considered as evidence for prodigiousness. Historical cases of note most often seem to involve musical precocity or evidence of general mental acuity. As an example of the latter, consider the case of Laura Bassi, an eighteenth century mathematician and scientist:
Laura Maria Caterina Bassi was a child prodigy. She was educated in mathematics, philosophy, anatomy, natural history, and languages by Dr. Gaetano Tacconi, a professor at the college of medicine. At the age of 21, she engaged in a public debate with five philosophers. Bassi went on to receive her doctorate in philosophy from the University of Bologna in 1733.(Alic, 1986, p. 136).
One can assume from this passage that Laura Bassi’s prodigiousness consisted primarily of being an extraordinarily able student who was able to progress quickly in a number of different fields while still a relatively young child. Bassi was undoubtedly blessed with a generous quantity of general intellectual acuity. One also suspects that she was unusually facile mentally and quite confident about her abilities, as evidenced by her willingness to match wits publicly with a panel of professional academics while she was just barely out of adolescence. Bassi’s is the kind of precocity which is often intuitively considered as prodigiousness, and over the past 50 years this notion has been underscored and institutionalized by the psychometrically-inspired gifted child movement (see, for example, Cox, 1926). Yet the association of prodigiousness with IQ leads to both Type I and Type II errors of diagnosis – there are many academically-gifted children who do not display precocious mastery of any specific body of knowledge, and conversely, there are children who do evidence early prodigious achievement but who do not possess generally powerful intellects.
The second general area of prodigiousness to have received attention historically is music, where talented children have been in the public eye for hundreds of years. These children often fail to conform to the high IQ notion or giftedness: rather than demonstrating generally powerful minds which are focused specifically on musical accomplishment they seem to possess a specialized gift – a particular musical sensibility which is not readily applicable to other domains. In this respect, music prodigies represent a “purer” form of the prodigy phenomenon. Their talents are specialized, and when still quite young their musical abilities can be evaluated by experts. The music prodigy performs publicly or produces compositions which can be judged against criteria for mature musical performance. In contrast, the intellectually precocious (high IQ) child may not actually produce independent, mature works during childhood but, like Laura Bassi, John Stuart Mill, Norbert Wiener, or Edith Stern, they make astoundingly rapid progress in a number of intellectually challenging domains.
The distinction between children who have extremely powerful general intellects and those who show extraordinary talent in a particular domain is discussed in more detail elsewhere (Feldman with Goldsmith, 1986). This distinction was proposed to emphasize the difference between children who are exceedingly bright and promise to make some extraordinary contribution in the future and those who have already produced works of exceptional maturity. We have concentrated our own investigations on children whose talents have already yielded unusual products, defining the prodigy as a child who is performing at the level of an adult professional in a cognitively demanding field before the age of ten (Feldman, 1980: Feldman with Goldsmith, 1986). This is the only operational definition to have been proposed for prodigious achievement. It is a stringent one, and even our own sample of prodigies varies in terms of how well the children meet this criterion, but it does assist in articulating the phenomenon and, in particular, in emphasizing the difference between early productivity and early promise. Quite obviously, this criterion cannot always be applied retrospectively to historical accounts of children with unusual abilities, but it can serve as a guideline for collecting evidence of girls with prodigious talents.
One should also note that this definition of a prodigy emphasizes performance in a cognitively demanding field. This requirement, which was included for reasons pertaining to the original intent of our study (Feldman, 1979, 1980), effectively excludes those children whose talent lies in domains which are primarily kinesthetic. This is not to suggest that youngsters are unable to excel in such kinesthetic fields (they obviously are), but only to note that these domains are beyond the scope of this paper. In contrast to domains which me primarily cognitive, the most promising performers in many forms of athletic competition or kinesthetic expression are barely into their teens, and in this sense early prodigious achievement is the norm rather than the exception. The question of why this might be the case is one worth investigating in its own right.
Factors influencing the expression of early prodigious achievement
Although the prodigy displays an unquestionably rare talent for mastering a particular field, it is not this raw ability alone that “makes” a prodigy. Despite stereotypes to the contrary, the expression of the prodigy’s talent depends on a delicately orchestrated “coincidence” of factors: the development of the prodigy’s ability is a long and arduous process requiring expert instruction, emotional support, strict personal discipline, and a sustained commitment to study and practice (Feldman, 1979, 1980; Feldman with Goldsmith, 1986).
Among the coincidence forces which may exert strong differential effects on boys’ and girls’ expression of extreme talent are those cultural and family values which may support or discourage the expression of individual potential (see Kerr, 1985 for a discussion of some of the factors that have impeded girls’ expression of talent). It is within the family constellation that a child’s talent is usually first detected, and it is here that decisions are made regarding whether or how it is to be further developed. These decisions are often influenced by the prevailing cultural milieu. If the culture dictates (either explicitly or implicitly) that girls cannot or should not learn science or mathematics, for example, then fewer families are likely even to offer their daughters the opportunity to explore these disciplines, let alone to encourage them to pursue a demonstrated talent in these fields.
Alic (1986) describes an uncomfortably large number of historical cases of exceedingly gifted women scientists and mathematicians who found that they had to fight tenaciously for the simple privilege of instruction in their chosen fields–a privilege which was automatic for their male peers (or, worse, for their siblings). Countries which were more egalitarian in their educational values and practice produce a correspondingly larger number of serious women scholars. Alic notes that Italy, in particular, had a reputation for respecting women’s scholarship, and a number of women settled there in search of greater intellectual freedom. In contrast, the English gentlewoman’s education ran more toward the “womanly” arts of needlework, sketching, some familiarity with literature and history, and a modicum of musical accomplishment, leaving aspiring scientists and philosophers the added burden of securing their own instruction amidst general societal resistance.
Such cultural factors – as reflected in the values, expectations, and opportunities provided to daughters by their parents – have surely influenced whether girls with exceptional talent have been accorded the opportunity to develop their abilities. The reverse relation between family and culturally-held values may also occur. There have undoubtedly always been families, peculiar for their time and place, which have valued, identified, and encouraged certain abilities in their children even though they ran counter to those emphasized by the larger culture. Francis Galton’s family, for example, educated its daughters as well as its sons. Galton’s 13 year old sister Adele was almost entirely responsible for his early education, instructing him in Latin, Greek, modern English literature, some geology, and the naturalist’s techniques of collection and classification before his fifth year (Forrest, 1974; Pearson, 1914), (The Galtons, and their relations the Wedgewoods and Darwins held a number of unusual views for their time and station in life. They were also abolitionists, taking a position regarding human rights which ran counter to the prevailing English Zeitgeist in the early nineteenth century.)
The second level at which these coincidence forces may work to encourage or suppress the expression of girls’ talent is that of the culture more broadly. Once outside of the bosom of a facilitating family, a talented girl may find social censure so strong that she will choose to neglect, or even deny her gifts. For example, despite current increases in awareness of sex stereotyping of intellectual abilities and a society-wide effort to increase opportunity and support for girls in mathematics and science, talented girls still experience pressure to abandon or downplay their abilities. In a study of high school girl demonstrating very strong mathematical abilities, Csikszentmihalyi (in Buckner, Mendelssohn, & Whittlesey, 1985) has found that the girls nonetheless often chose to forego serious pursuit of mathematics in favor of maintaining comfortable (and non-threatening) status within the peer group. Virginia Woolf has painted a much more chilling, albeit hypothetical, picture of the potential clash between culture and talent in a society with far more constrained and rigid notions of women’s roles:
Let me imagine… what would have happened had Shakespeare had a wonderfully gifted sister… as adventurous, as imaginative, as agog to see the world as he was. But she was not sent to school. She had no chance of learning grammar and logic, let alone of reading Horace and Virgil. She picked up a book now and then, one of her brother’s perhaps, and read a few pages. But then her parents came in and told her to mend the stockings or mind the stew and not moon about books and papers… Perhaps she scribbled some pages up in an apple loft on the sly, but was careful to hide them or set fire to them. Soon, however, she was betrothed…(but) the force of her own gift alone drove her to (disobey her parents and run away)…
She had the quickest fancy, a gift like her brother’s, for the tune of words. Like his, she had a taste for the theatre. She stood at the stage door: she wanted to act, she said. Men laughed in her face…at last Nick Greene the actor-manager took pity on her; she found herself with child by that gentleman and so – who shall measure the head and violence of the poet’s heart when caught and tangled in a woman’s body? – killed herself one night…
This may be true or false – who can say? – but what is true in it, so it seemed to me…is that any woman born with a great gift in the sixteenth century would certainly have gone crazed, shot herself, or ended her days in some lonely cottage outside the village, half witch, half wizard, feared and mocked at. For it needs little skill in psychology to be sure that a highly gifted girl who had tried to use her gift for poetry would have been so thwarted and hindered by other people, so tortured and pulled asunder by her own contrary instincts, that she must have lost her health and sanity to a certainty. (Woolf, 1929. pp. 80-86).
A society, through its media, may also indirectly influence our perceptions of children with unusual talent by drawing attention to some individuals and not to others. Prodigies come to public attention primarily through media exposure, be it eighteenth century handbills announcing the upcoming clavier recital of eight-year old Ludwig Beethoven, or 1986 television news coverage of the Tanglewood debut of 13 year old violinist Midori.
Certain personalities seem to capture the interest of the media while others do not, and the nature and amount of attention accorded to individual prodigies at least partly influence their place in history. For many years violinist Yehudi Menuhin was the darling of the press; both his professional engagements and his private life were eagerly reported in newspapers, magazines, film shorts and radio. While Menuhin was without question an extraordinary musician, he also seemed to have a personal chemistry that captured the public’s imagination, for he received considerably more media attention than a number of other extremely talented, contemporaneous young musicians. At about the same time, mathematical “wunderkind” William James Sidis was also the focus of much media attention but, unlike Menuhin, Sidis found himself the victim of a hostile press. Whereas Menuhin’s charm and affability yielded strong public approbation, the confident, arrogant, and socially awkward Sidis alienated the media, with disastrous effects on his personal life and professional productivity (Wallace, 1986).
Our knowledge of prodigies, then, is significantly limited by the extent to which the media discover, describe, and disseminate information about the extraordinary talents of young children. A culture that does not value feminine achievement is unlikely to report about girl prodigies, even if they may be in good supply. Thus, the examples of girl prodigies that have come to our attention are most probably but a small sampling of all such cases, since we can reasonably assume that the accomplishments of a number of extremely talented girls (and, for that matter, boys) have gone unnoted. We know about many of the historical cases of girl prodigies only because they grow into women who subsequently made significant contributions to their fields as adults. It is rarer to come across retrospective accounts of individuals who displayed extraordinary talents as children, but who had unremarkable adult careers (but see Beers, 1978).
Thus, the cultural milieu exerts a strong effect on the appearance and development of the prodigy (and perhaps most particularly, the girl prodigy) through family values, educational opportunities, and media attention as well. While a set of unusually independent-minded parents might choose to nurture a daughter’s extraordinary talent contrary to prevailing societal values and expectations, we might still never hear of her if no chronicler thought to leave us any record of that young girl’s accomplishments.
Some examples of girl prodigies, past and present
Having noted these cautions and possible causes for the seeming paucity of girl prodigies, we turn to some cases of young girls demonstrating truly exceptional abilities. These cases are not an exhaustive compilation, but rather a first effort to document some of the extraordinary talents of young girls. These examples are intended to offer a sense of the range or young girls’ achievements over the years, and to serve as a reminder that girls as well as boys have been blessed with extraordinary talents. The historical cases especially should emphasize this point, since these young girls developed their talents in cultures that were often unsupportive – or even hostile – toward women’s pursuit of excellence.
Science and Mathematics. One often assumes that a powerful intellect is the key to making contributions to science and mathematics. Yet while academically gifted children can be found fairly frequently, there are surprisingly few mathematical or scientific prodigies of either gender. Quite possibly this is the case because the structure of the domains themselves do not lend themselves to mastery by very young children, even children with exceedingly powerful minds (Feldman, 1980; Feldman with Goldsmith, 1986). But while children under the age of ten rarely display prodigious achievements in mathematics or science, adolescents have made significant contributions to these fields, particularly in mathematics. What often passes for a child prodigy in science or mathematics, then, is in actuality a generally intellectually precocious (i.e. high IQ) youngster who demonstrates rapid, but not astonishingly mature, mastery of some relevant field. Nonetheless, we should consider several historical cases of young women who demonstrated extraordinary mastery of one of these domains during their late childhood or early adolescence.
By the time she was 12, seventeenth century naturalist and philosopher Anne Conway had already learned several languages and had begun serious study of science and philosophy under the tutelage of her elder brother. She continued these studies throughout her lifetime, corresponding and collaborating with some of the leading British scholars of the day. When in her early 40’s, Conway wrote a treatise entitled Principles of the Most Ancient and Modern Philosophy which refuted the Cartesian mechanistic world view. Published anonymously (and posthumously under the sponsorship of her male colleague van Helmont), this work is credited with having a significant influence on Leibniz’s subsequent philosophical formulations (Alic. 1986).
Another woman scientist who seems to have been a prodigy was Laura Bassi, already described above. As an adult she became a university professor, studying physics, philosophy, and mathematics. Her contemporary, Maria Agnesi, became known for the mathematical studies she completed while still in her 20’s. Her intellectual precocity was first noted by her father, who was a mathematics professor at the University of Bologna. Recognizing hers as an unusual talent, he hired a fellow mathematician to serve as her tutor. In addition to her own studies, Agnesi oversaw the education of her younger brothers (she was the eldest of 21 children). With all of these responsibilities, she published “her collection of 190 essays on philosophy, logic, mechanics, elasticity, celestial mechanics, and Newton’s theory of universal gravitation” at the age of 20 (Alic, 1986, p.137).
These three women each showed extreme intellectual precocity as children and made substantive contributions to their fields as adults. There are several other cases of exceptional women scientists or mathematicians who completed significant work in their young adulthood, but who are not described as prodigies per se in published accounts of their achievements.
Marie Paulze married Antoine Lavoisier when she was 14; the two collaborated in scientific studies which were central in ushering in the era of modern chemistry. Their first major break-through came when they were able to discredit the notion of phlogiston by demonstrating that oxygen is the element fueling the combustion of burnable materials. This work, more than tell years in the making, was completed when Marie Lavoisier was 25 (Alic, 1986).
Sophie Germain began an informal study of mathematics when she was 13, and in six years had mastered the field to such a degree that her work came to the attention of mathematician Joseph Lagrange. Working almost exclusively outside of the established (male) mathematical community, Germain nonetheless made a substantial contribution to the field of number theory and, at age 40, won the Institute de France’s Prix extraordinaire for her solution to the problem of the vibration of elastic surfaces (Alic, 1986).
Ada Lovelace was a young English girl whose early studies included music, algebra, geometry, geography, astronomy, French, and Latin. She developed a strong passion for mathematics as a teenager, seeking tutorial arrangements which included an enthusiastic correspondence with the renowned Mary Somerville (Baum, 1986; Moore, 1977; Stein, 1985). At the age of 17 she met Charles Babbage, the inventor of the “analytical engine,” which was the forerunner of the modern digital computer. They began a collaboration which included Lovelace’s developing programs for complex mathematical calculations, as well as making accurate predictions about the power and range of future applications of computational machines.
Finally, there is the case of a 20th century woman who, though not a mathematician, demonstrated an extraordinary facility with numbers at a very early age. Shakuntala Devi is a mental calculator, able to perform exceedingly complex arithmetic calculations with lightning speed. She demonstrated this ability even as a young child, noting that she fell in love with numbers when she was three (Devi, 1977). Her talent is not an original one in the sense that she has not made substantive contributions to the field of mathematics, but it is an extraordinary one nonetheless. The abilities of mental calculators have long been recognized, and have been noted as an area of prodigiousness with some frequency (see, for example, Harlow, 1953; Smith, 1983). Devi, however, is the only case of a girl calculator described in the literature.
Music performance and composition
Children who display prodigious abilities as musical performers are perhaps the largest category of child prodigies. Composers are found less frequently, for it seems to be more common for aspiring young composers to master instrumental performance first and then to turn to the production of new musical works. Notable women composers of any age are also a rare commodity, and there are few historical examples of prodigious girl composers. Cäcilie (Fanny) Mendelssohn, Felix’s older sister, was both a composer and pianist of some note, publishing a number of compositions under her brother’s name, as well as other works under her own. Mendelssohn’s work was not especially well known, however, and the vast bulk of her compositions remained in her private papers. Her major musical contribution seems to have been as her brother’s most constant advisor and critic.
Among more contemporary women composers who displayed unusual talent for instrumental performance and composition at an early age are Graznya Bacewicz, Margaret Bonds, Vivian Fine, Margaret Lang and Phillipa Schuyler. While composers have been relatively rare, prodigious girl instrumentalists have come to the public’s attention more frequently, although few of these women have enjoyed major concertizing careers as adults. These include: eighteenth-century clavier prodigy Marianne (Nannerl) Mozart, twentieth-century pianists Minuetta Kessler, Ethel Legingka, Hephzibah and Yaltah Menuhin, Phillipa Schulyer, Jeanne Shapiro, Ruth Slenczynska, and Lucie Stern, Violinist Erna Rubenstein, and violist Lillian Fuchs.
For several hundred years handwork of various kinds was considered part of the curriculum of the well educated gentlewoman. Talented young girls were encouraged to develop their drawing or needle skills, although there was rarely if ever the expectation that indications of a special talent or interest would lead to serious training toward an artistic career. While girls–even those with obvious talent–were rarely encouraged to pursue careers in the fine arts, a number were able to realize strong graphic abilities as book illustrators. Alic (1986) notes, for example, that chemist Marie Lavoisier was also an extremely accomplished artist, having studied with the eminent French painter, Louis David. She illustrated many of the Lavoisier articles, including the 1789 text, Traite de chimie. In the nineteenth century, English children’s author Beatrix Potter published many of her delicate water-colors as companion illustrations to her children’s books. Other girls who have left a record of extraordinary graphic skills include Kate Greenaway, and the Bronte sisters. Charlotte and Emily (Engen, 1981; Moore, 1955; Hjerter, 1986)
In more recent years, Franziska Baumgarten (1925) studied a young artist named Doris Wallner, whose sketches showed unusual maturity. Baumgarten also mentioned two young British girls who had received some attention in the 1920’s a youngster named Daphne Allen, whose illustrated fairy tales were published by Allyn & Unwin, and 16 year old Jacynth Parsons, who sold a sizeable number of the paintings she exhibited in a London gallery. In the United States, 10 year old Janel Lessing came to the attention of the media in the early 1960’s after exhibiting her drawings and paintings at UCLA and later, at a solo show at a major Los Angeles art gallery (Seidenbaum, 1962).
In A Room of One’s Own, Virginia Woolf (1929) argued that it is largely the lack of societal support that has kept women from producing major literary works. Woolf argued that, denied even a room of one’s own to collect one’s thoughts and commit them to paper, women have had little hope of sustaining the energy and concentration necessary to produce literature. Yet women have had access to, and developed many of the skills requisite for making literary contributions. In particular, the well-educated woman was encouraged to read widely and to maintain extensive correspondences and personal journals, thereby providing the occasion and opportunity for exploring the texture arid use of language. In fact, despite Woolf’s comments to the contrary, writing may be one of the most initially accessible domains for women, as it does not require using special equipment, learning a new and technical vocabulary, or securing prior instruction in the fundamentals of the domain. Unlike mathematics, science, or music, writing fundamentally requires only pencil, paper, and a story to tell.
This is not intended to suggest that it is easy to master literary forms, or that child writers are found frequently, for indeed they are not (Feldman with Goldsmith, 1986). In fact, crafting truly masterful literature and offering some insight into the human condition may require a more mature mind than does interpreting a piece of music or understanding mathematics or physics. Yet it may be that the initial access to the domain of writing is freer than it is for other fields, which require formal instruction and initiation into the discipline, even for the novice.
At least four young girls proved to be very good story tellers indeed, although two never plied their craft past their adolescence. At the end of the nineteenth century, a nine year old English girl named Daisy Ashford published a novel detailing a child’s view of Victorian life. The Young Visiters [sic] was a commercial success and it is still in print in England, nearly 100 years after its original publication. Another writing prodigy, Winifred Stoner, emerged in the United States in the early 1900’s. Young Winifred produced mostly short, descriptive stories and some poetry, samples of which are included in her mother’s published account of her educational philosophy and practice (Stoner, 1914).
While neither of these girls pursued their literary talents as adults, their predecessors Jane Austen and Charlotte Brontë produced some of the classic works of English literature. Although Austen’s first novel was not published until she was in her 30’s, scholars agree that she already showed evidence of being a gifted writer by her eleventh or twelfth year (Halperin, 1974; Hodge, 1972). Between the ages of about 11 and 17 she filled three notebooks with about 90,000 words’ worth of stories, sketches, novels, and popularized historical accounts. These notebooks already display control of the language, a sharp sense of the comic, a satirical bent, and the exploration of themes which were to characterize her mature works.
Writing was also a major activity in the Brontë household, where collaborations among Charlotte, Emily, Anne, and Branwell yielded a number of literary efforts both individually and jointly. The Bronte family seems to have been an unusual one in that writing was a shared activity which constituted an enormous part of the children’s daily activity. When Charlotte was 12 and Emily was eight they began a series of secret “bed(time) stories” which Charlotte eventually transformed into a series caned “Tales of the Islanders,” and which Emily later adapted in the Gondal saga. Charlotte, in particular, worked and reworked the exotic themes of these early stories throughout her adolescence (Gerin, 1967, 1971; Sinclair, 1912). Beginning around age seven or eight, and for several years thereafter, their brother Branwell produced a “Young Men’s Magazine” for the family, modeled after the popular “Blackwood’s Magazine.” Always close childhood collaborators, Charlotte was a frequent contributor to the magazine. It is difficult to imagine a family milieu more oriented toward encouraging and promoting the exploration of the written word, unless it had also included a mentor to provide criticism and guidance for the budding authors. By the time she was 14 Charlotte had catalogued her writings, which included 22 “major” stories and books, and the stream of poems and stories she had contributed to Branwell’s magazine. Gerin (1967) characterizes these early efforts as revealing observational powers and sensitivity to relationships far Out of the ordinary. Emily, too, participated in these childhood writing projects, although she did not initiate them as often as her two older siblings. Apparently her handwriting was so poor that she rarely recorded her literary efforts if someone else would do so. Despite these limitations, Emily apparently drew heavily from her childhood experiences and literary tales in the creation of her mature poetic works (Gerin, 1971).
There has been a renewed interest in the phenomenon of the prodigy in recent years. As both scholars and the popular media turn their attention to children with exceptional abilities, reports of girl prodigies have begun to appear with greater frequency. When David Feldman began his study of prodigies 12 years ago, he was unable to find any girls to include in his sample (Feldman, 1979, 1960; Feldman with Goldsmith, 1986). However, more than a dozen exceptionally talented young girls have captured the imagination of the American public in the intervening years. Below are descriptions of a number of these girls.
Mathematics and Science
In an area which supports few prodigies of either gender, Britisher Ruth Lawrence is about as close to a mathematics prodigy as anyone ever gets. Her progress in mathematics has been nothing short of stunning. She completed her bachelor’s degree at Oxford University in 1985 at the age of 13, finishing first in her exams and graduating with honors in mathematics. While she has yet to make original contributions to mathematics, she has clearly demonstrated a mastery of the field which is not only far in advance of her years, but significantly beyond the levels achieved by most college-educated adults. She is currently enrolled at Oxford as a doctoral student in mathematics.
Music performance and composition
Both historically and today, the most frequent type of prodigy seems to be the gifted young musician. Composers are still relatively rare, and there are currently few young girls (or boys) who are producing compositions of exceptional quality. A number of exceptionally talented young instrumentalists, however, are currently performing. These include violinists Midori and Anne-Sophie Mutter, pianists Stephanie Brown, Katja Cerovsek, Naveh Perlman and Ju Hee Suh, and jazz drummer Terri Lynne Carrington. Although Carrington is not a composer per se, jazz performance includes a significant improvisational component which does require musical generativity. In this respect, she is distinguished from the instrumentalists who perform primarily classical repertoires, where interpretation but not elaboration is the major responsibility.
And while Carrington might therefore be considered a quasi-composer, composition is the major focus of 12 year old Dalit Warshaw’s musical talent, although she is also a gifted pianist. Her compositions have already received considerable critical attention. Four years ago Warshaw was one of the winners of the Aaron Copland Competition, and the following year, at age nine, she became the youngest winner in the 32 year history of the BMI competition for student composers. Since then, she has written an eight part symphonic suite which has been performed by several symphony orchestras. (Schwartz, 1984). Warshaw appears to possess the fluency, imagination, musicality, and persistence that would point to a promising composition career.
Two extremely talented visual artists have come to the public’s attention in the past ten years; an English girl of Ukranian descent known as Nadia, and a young mainland Chinese girl named Yani. Between the ages of three and eight, Nadia produced an extraordinary series of pen and paper sketches, primarily of animals, often using book illustrations as the basis for her drawings (Selfe, 1977). The discovery of Nadia’s talent “blew every theory (we had about children’s artistic development) out of the water” (Gardner, in Buckner, Mendelssohn, & Whittlesey, 1985), not only because she drew with a maturity unknown to young children, but also because she was autistic. It has been difficult indeed to resolve the disparity between her extreme psychological isolation and her extraordinarily mature, and untutored, graphic skills. It is difficult enough to account for prodigious talent in children who are able to communicate and learn through the usual channels; it seems nearly impossible to explain how an autistic child might do so (but see White, in press, and Goldsmith & Feldman, in press). Recently, psychiatrist Rima Laibow has begun to collect evidence about a number of autistic children who seem to nurture prodigiousness which is hidden by their psychoses (Laibow, personal communication); hopefully her clinical break-throughs will offer more insight into this fascinating tangle of ability and disability.
In contrast to Nadia, Yani has been described as an average child who happens to have an extraordinary drawing talent (Li & Jiang, 1984). Her watercolors – most them of monkeys – evidence a grace and eloquence which far surpass her tender years.
As noted earlier, child writers are found infrequently, despite the fact that the field of writing seems to have high initial accessibility. Occasionally, however, we do hear of a very young child who demonstrates unusual command of the language and a penchant for creating prose. One such child is Alicia Witt. While her writing cannot be classified as that of an adult professional, it is so unusual by dial or sheer quantity and fluency that it must be noted as prodigious. By her parents’ account, Witt produced her first “novel” at age four: a six page handwritten story about Mary Tyler Moore. Her parents report that just a year later she had written six such novels, several plays, and a number of short stories. She has continued to write, but has also expended her interests in new directions. Two years ago, at age eight, she landed a role in the movie “Dune,” and also began to study the piano. Although she is not as accomplished a musician as those 10 year old prodigies who began instruction at age three or four, she has made astounding progress as a musician and entertains regularly at a local supper club.
This shift from writing to music is one which we also observed in our subject. Randy McDaniel (Feldman with Goldsmith, 1986). In fact, two of the children we followed began serious musical study during the course of our observations; this change of allegiance from the original area of prodigious achievement led us to wonder whether music doesn’t have a unique power and privileged position in the constellation of human abilities (see Feldman with Goldsmith, 1986, and also Sacks, 1987).
Girl prodigies have recently begun to emerge in the field of chess. Despite the fact that competitive chess has always been dominated by men, changes in current cultural values seem to be making it more accessible to a larger number of girls, with a corresponding increase in the number of female competitors. More than ever before the chess world recognizes the possibility of strong women players, and bas begun to provide the encouragement, support, and instruction necessary for girls to master the game. Some of these girls, in turn, exhibit the intense dedication and rapid progress characteristic of the chess prodigy.
Ten year old Julia Sarwer, for example, learned the game as a youngster, and held a B-level rating of 1218 points in January, 1987. Although she is not the strongest girl of her age playing today, she and her brother have been the subjects of popular media attention. Julia taught her younger brother Jeff to play when he was still in nursery school and now, at age eight, he is a rising chess star who is ranked twentieth in the country in the under 13 category. Though Julia is a strong player she may lack the fierceness, aggressiveness, and single-mindedness that characterize the toughest competitors. Perhaps she has moderated her own tendency to go for the jugular in order to offset her brother’s sometimes excessive brashness and arrogance; in any event, chess does not seem to be the all-consuming passion for her that it is for her brother (Kiersh, 1986).
What Julia Sarwer may lack in aggressiveness and persistence seems to be abundantly present – in triplicate – in the Hungarian Polgar family. These three sisters commanded the attention and imagination of the U .S. chess public in 1986 with very strong showings in the New York Open Tournament. The eldest, 17 year old Susan, is one of the strongest women players in the world, with a grandmaster level rating of 2490 points in January, 1987 (Kasparov and Karpov, the highest ranking players in the world, have ratings of about 2700). While her toughness stands her in good stead at the chess board, it has created difficulties for her with the Hungarian chess bureaucracy. She has vociferously criticized the weakness of female competitors and has refused to play in women’s tournaments, entering men’s competition instead without official sanction. In response to her defiance, the Hungarian Chess Federation has denied her official grandmaster status despite her qualifying rating. Nonetheless, she remains outspoken about her unwillingness to waste her time in tournament play with women who are not strong challengers.
Susan’s two younger sisters are also chess prodigies, and promise to be forces to contend with in the future. Sophia, who is 11, took second place in her section of the 1986 New York Open and had a post-Open rating of 2050. Her nine year old sister Judith was the second youngest entrant in the 1986 Open, dazzling the entire tournament by winning her section (the unrated players) in her first international appearance. Her post-Open rating was 2203, which also places her in the master level of play. By all media accounts, these three sisters do display the confidence, passion, commitment, persistence, dedication, and raw chess ability that seems to characterize the prodigy.
There are, in addition, several other young girls currently playing competitive chess who were quite strong players before they were 10: for example, 10 year old Yvonne Krawiec, who was ranked 21 in the under 13; and 11 year old Jessica Ambats and 12 year old Angela Chang, who were both ranked in the top 50 women players of any age.
Some speculations about early prodigious achievement
These, then, are some examples of girl prodigies, both past and present. Some of their names are familiar, but many are not: both their names and their accomplishments have faded into obscurity. Yet they have left a legacy of sorts – a variety of questions about the hows and whys of early prodigious achievement – questions which can be posed but not yet answered.
To begin: how, in fact, does a prodigy develop? Feldman’s theory of coincidence emphasizes that a propitious conjunction and coordination of forces is critical for an extraordinarily talented individual to express extraordinary ability as actual achievement (Feldman, 1980; Feldman with Goldsmith, 1986). For girls in particular, this requires having parents attuned to the possibility that their daughters might possess special gifts, having teachers available who acknowledge and value achievement in young girls, and having a facilitating cultural environment which encourages and supports feminine achievements.
We are still a long way from understanding fully how these forces are engaged and subsequently interact. We still have much to learn about the ways in which talent is discovered and fostered by parents, teachers, and cultural institutions for prodigies of either gender. But most particularly we have little or no direct observation of how this process unfolds in girls. Despite recent advances in the equality of educational opportunity, one cannot help but wonder whether the frequency of girl prodigies would not increase with greater culturally-driven interest and attention to girls’ talents and with greater efforts to facilitate their development.
When considering early prodigious achievement the emphasis is almost always on the cognitive aspects of early mastery. It is also important to consider the possible roles of “personality” factors in the identification and development of talent. All prodigies, for example, seem to display qualities of persistence, passion, and commitment to their fields far in excess of what is observed in most of their age mates (Feldman with Goldsmith, 1986). We might ask further if there are certain temperamental inclinations which yield good matches between individual and field, while others make a poorer fit. Two children with similar intellectual gifts but very different personalities might make substantially different progress in mastering a domain; the child with a close match between temperament and domain might soar ahead, exhibiting early prodigious achievement, while the other child might founder, somehow caught off-center, unable to “click” with the exercise of the discipline. Chess, for example, seems to require a certain kind of aggressiveness – a relish for relentless assault – which may not appeal to a child with a strong inclination toward altruism, regardless of how “chessical” (John Collins, personal communication, 1975) his or her mind might be. Literature, in contrast, might be a domain which would favor a more reflective, introspective individual prone to considering others’ experiences and feelings.
It is possible that, for whatever reasons, boys and girls may differ (on average) in the degree to which they display different kinds of temperamental qualities. Such gender differences could have a biological substrate, and they would most certainly be shaped and reinforced by specific childrearing practices and the impact of the broader cultural milieu. The contributions of temperamental factors to the development of early prodigious achievement merits serious consideration. In some cases, temperament may provide the key to whether a talent flourishes or stagnates. For example, it is a good guess that a gifted but diffident chess player will fail to develop into a world class player. He or she may learn hundreds of openings, gambits, defenses, and endgames, may be able to play quickly, and may be brilliant at anticipating opponents’ moves, but if the child does not hunger for the conquest and relish in aggressive action on the chessboard, then a critical piece of what it takes to be a great player is missing. If we can make some progress in explaining the contributions that temperament makes to the exercise of cognitive ability, we will have come a long way to understanding the development of talent.
Finally, one must consider the possibility of gender differences in interests, and perhaps even in cognitive activity, which would lead girl and boy prodigies toward different domains for study and mastery. These differences might also be biologically based to some extent; they are undoubtedly heavily patterned and reinforced by cultural values. Whatever their origins, it appears at first blush that girl prodigies are better represented in some fields than others, and further exploration of why this might be the case is in order. While there are a large number of girl musicians, for example, girl chess players and composers seem to be outnumbered by boys. In contrast, there may be more girls showing prodigious literary talents than boys. One currently hears about boys who show strong interest and talent in computer programming, but rarely are there newspaper or magazine accounts of budding girl “computerphiles.” We know very little about the cast of mind that is drawn to master different kinds of fields, or about the particular ways of thinking which are needed to understand different bodies of knowledge. When we know more about such relationships, we may understand more about gender differences (or at least, individual differences) in the development of specific talents. Why prodigies are found in some fields and not others, and whether certain fields attract more children of one gender than the other, is a matter for further attention.
Summary and Conclusion: Excellence in Adulthood
Although there has been occasional recognition of girl prodigies for the past several hundred years, for many the phenomenon of the child prodigy is nonetheless associated with male accomplishments. In this respect, the prodigy phenomenon as little different from the general history of intellectual accomplishment, which is largely a history written by and about men. Certainly the past century has seen progress in the cultural recognition, support, and facilitation of girls’ education, with an eye toward acknowledging women’s intellectual contributions. It seems that one reflection of this culturally inspired movement toward equality is the recognition of an increasingly large number of girl prodigies. This paper represents an effort to locus attention on the existence or extraordinary talent in young girls by describing some cases of their early prodigious achievements.
Yet it is necessary to conclude with a caution: the ultimate measure of significant arid lasting achievement is not to be found in the accomplishments of the prodigy, however dazzling they may be. It is important to document the fact that girls as well as boys can display extraordinary precocious mastery of a field, and to examine further the ways in which girl and boy prodigies are similar and also how they might be different. It is equally important to remember, however, that this early mastery in no way insures subsequent significant contributions to the field. Feldman has described the prodigy as an example of a sublime match of individual proclivity with an existing body of knowledge (Feldman, 1980; Feldman with Goldsmith, 1986). The prodigy is an embodiment, as it were, of the present distilled knowledge contained in a field. Such a child is somehow pretuned to comprehend the intricacies of a domain, progressing through its levels with an unprecedented speed. But this progression is not instantaneous, nor is the projected endpoint of such a steep trajectory of mastery guaranteed. Prodigies are notable for their rapid mastery, but not necessarily for their lifelong contributions to the field. How many of the women mentioned above were familiar? For that matter, how recognizable are the names of boy prodigies Christian Heinrich Heiniken, Karl Witte, William James Sidis, or Christian Kriens?
Because the child prodigy masters a field at such an early age and with such apparent ease, it is often assumed that he or she will make important contributions as adults. Certainly prodigies have more time for such contributions than those practitioners who do not establish productive careers until they are adults. But many prodigies “burn out,” abandoning their original area of expertise even before their adolescent years are over (Bamberger, 1982; Feldman with Goldsmith, 1986). It may also be that the match between prodigy and field is not a good one for pushing beyond the status quo. The prodigy may somehow capture the existing state of the art for the domain, but may not be able to extend or transform it.
Conversely, even in those fields which produce prodigies, the most original adult contributors were not necessarily prodigies themselves (with the possible exception of music). None of the accounts of the childhood accomplishments of women Nobel Laureates, for example, would lead to the conclusion that they were child prodigies: they were perhaps intellectually gifted in general and bright, inquisitive youngsters, but they would not be described as child prodigies (Curie, 1937; Keller, E., 1983: Keller, M., 1982; Opfell, 1972). Neither were their predecessors, those eighteenth and nineteenth century women who made the most significant contributions to science, medicine, or mathematics: for example, Annie Jump Cannon, Emilie du Chatelet, Sophie Germain, Caroline Herschel, Sophie Kovalevsky, Mary Montagu, or Mary Somerville (Alic, 1986; Carter, 1985; Kennedy, 1983; Mitchell, 1960; Patterson, 1974; Stillman, 1974). In fact, the most startling fact about a number of these women is that they were largely self-educated or lacking any serious formal education until well into adolescence, and their contributions were made correspondingly late in their lives.
The lesson of all this is to recognize the complexity and delicacy of achieving full expression of an individual’s talents. As parents, psychologists, and educators, we must be more attuned to the subtleties of this process if we hope to promote greater realization of individual potential, be it prodigious or otherwise. The prodigy provides an example of a seemingly robust, exceedingly precocious expression of ability, but it is one which noneless is delicate and in need of constant, vigilant monitoring. The existence of girl prodigies–even in times and cultures which attached relatively little value to the feminine pursuit of excellence–provides evidence for the power of individual determination to achieve self expression. But it is still sobering to contemplate how many more gifts have gone unheeded over the centuries. The more we understand about the processes of development and the forms in which talent may be expressed, the more able we will be to foster individual expression at every age, be it in children of very tender years, in college students, in middle-aged housewives, or in grandmothers still seeking their own special voices.
Reprinted by kind permission of the author, Dr Lynn T. Goldsmith and publisher, Roeper ReviewRead less