Investigation of Genius to Be Analyzed

Two California researchers have received a two-year $47,000 grant from the Spencer Foundation in New York to analyze more than 60 years of data contained in the Terman Study, a project that has followed the lives of 672 California women since they were schoolgirls in the 1920s.

What is unique about the research is that the Terman Study is an investigation of genius. All of the subjects, 1,500 men and women, were identified early as highly gifted children with IQs of 140 or above. They have been followed with questionnaires at five-year intervals since 1921. Housed at Stanford University, the material includes more than 4,000 responses to questionnaires detailing the subjects’ childhoods, education, personalities, careers, families, physical and mental health, life stresses and adjustment to old age. (The late Lewis Terman, who designed and conducted the research was a professor at Stanford; on his death in 1956, Robert Sears, a Stanford professor and one of the original “Terman kids,” continued the work.)

“It’s an absolutely unparalleled study,” said Carol Tomlinson-Keasey, the UC Riverside psychology professor who, with co-researcher Lynda Warren of Cal State San Bernardino, received the grant for the analysis of the Terman data on women.

Questionnaire Used


Not surprisingly, considering the generation represented in the Terman research, data on the male geniuses who participated have been analyzed more extensively over the years than the data on the women. In 1975, the first study that looked exclusively at the women was conducted by Pauline Sears at Stanford. It used a questionnaire to inquire about the women’s satisfaction with their lives and compared them to the general population. This will be the first time, said Tomlinson-Keasey, that anyone has tried to assess whether these highly gifted women achieved success in life.

“It’s so much easier to look at indices of success if you take success as defined by career success,” said Tomlinson-Keasey. With the men’s careers, there were job titles, numbers of books written, “benchmarks of success,” she said. “So few of the women had careers, you can’t find those benchmarks so easily. You have to look at success in less public lives. Are they happy in their wife and mother roles? In volunteer settings?”

Because of their era, a small percentage of these women of extraordinary intellectual ability applied their talents to careers. Interfering with their opportunity for higher education were “the Depression and discrimination,” Tomlinson-Keasey said. “We found a number of women who applied to schools and got the sort of letters that say, ‘we only take four women.’ There were hard quotas. This kind of craziness is hard for us to relate to today. Many asked Terman to write letters (of recommendation) for them, and he did. He was very solicitous of ‘his’ kids.”

Virtually all of the men in the study had careers, but only about 25% of the equally gifted women. There were a few, Tomlinson-Keasey said, including two who received Ph.Ds and went on to distinguished careers in English and anthropology. However, she said, in the late 1950s and 1960s, “when things opened up for women, many of these women went back to school. When opportunity opened, these women jumped at it.” One went back to school and began a teaching career at the age of 50. Another woman in her 50s started a singing career.


‘Think This Will Help’

Nevertheless, the task of the research will have to be to discover the more elusive aspects of success in a group of people who do not have the kinds of obvious public achievements attained by the men in the study. “We’re trying to look at competence without the career aspect,” said Tomlinson-Keasey. “We think this will help us to understand the factors that affect the success of women today.”

Mental health, the ability to approach life with confidence and deal with adversity, will be one means of drawing conclusions about the successes of the women in the study, and the group offers a unique opportunity to see what aspects of women’s lives contribute to fulfillment when lack of intellectual ability is not a factor.

From the research she and Warren have conducted so far, Tomlinson-Keasey said, it appears that the women demonstrate a full range of mental health outcomes ranging from depression and suicide (there were eight suicides in the group) to those who viewed their lives as very successful and fulfilling.


The sample is too small to compare the rate of suicide among these gifted women to the rate in the population at large, Tomlinson-Keasey said. In the work on suicide, the first part of the analysis she and Warren have completed, Tomlinson-Keasey said family stability appeared to be a determinant of future emotional resilience. More than half of the women who committed suicide lost their fathers before they were 18, she said. “Today there are a lot of father-absent families,” she said. “If this is important in a woman’s development of confidence, we want to know about it.”

Tomlinson-Keasey expects that what there is to be learned about these gifted women who are now elderly will offer valuable information about success to young women.