Father to 1,000 Geniuses

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Lewis M. Terman was a great believer in the power of his IQ test to determine people’s proper roles in society. To him, measuring the intelligence quotient was as absolute as testing for tuberculosis--a disease that afflicted him throughout adulthood.

Born in Indiana in 1877, the 12th of 14 children, Terman was an avid reader who escaped the family’s farm and went on to head Stanford University’s psychology department. His own definition of a gifted child would likely have fitted him.

Poor health brought him west, where he worked briefly as a high school principal in San Bernardino and as a professor at the Los Angeles State Normal School (later to become UCLA) before moving to Stanford in 1910. Expanding on the work of French psychologist Alfred Binet, Terman produced the Stanford-Binet intelligence test (giving it the university’s name instead of his own, modesty that guaranteed his lifelong sinecure) and helped to usher in the age of mass intelligence screening. His test became the standard for all intelligence tests that followed, and it earned him a small fortune.


The Stanford-Binet was later assailed for its racial bias; Terman believed it proved inequities in the subjects, not the test. He maintained that poor and minority families produced a high number of “uneducable” children. Terman also believed that intelligence--or the lack of it--was inherited. “Their dullness seems to be racial . . . “ Terman wrote of several ethnic groups in 1916. “There is no possibility at present of convincing society that they should not be allowed to reproduce, although from a eugenic point of view they constitute a grave problem because of their unusually prolific breeding.”

Terman’s theories of genetic superiority gained a considerable following and are still advocated in some circles today. But toward the end of his career, he backed away from them, in part because of evidence from his study. “I am less sure of this now!” Terman wrote in 1951 in the margin of his 1932 autobiography, which asserted racial superiority. A year before his death, he added: “And still less sure in 1955!”