Lewis Terman was one of the great movers and shakers of American education. His life's mission was to perfect the art--he'd probably have called it science--of assessing intelligence, a task he set about on his arrival at Stanford University in 1910.
Today intelligence tests are in bad odor. Critics like Stephen Jay Gould ("The Mismeasure of Man") consider them culturally and racially biased. Indeed, the field has a long and sorry history. In the 19th Century, investigators regularly calipered skulls, poked and mapped cranial bumps and weighed the brains of cadavers in hopes of nailing down the best and the brightest. Not surprisingly, they sometimes stubbed their toes, as when the French savant Paul Broca found that Germans had heavier brains than his own countrymen.
By the turn of the century, skulls and bones were put aside for a new infatuation--IQ (for intelligence quotient) tests. While developer Alfred Binet never used them for anything more than identifying slow learners, they quickly became the pedagogical rage in the United States. Thanks to Terman and other promoters, they helped set educational policies, decide career paths, determine the fate of Army recruits during World War I and provide a scientific rationale for the postwar era's shameful, exclusionary immigration quotas.
None was more popular than Terman's own Stanford-Binet test, which became the standard gauge of intelligence. For more than half a century, anyone who passed through U.S. public schools or served in the U.S. military probably had at least one encounter with this vaunted mind-boggler or its latter-day rivals.
But Terman had another obsession. He was persuaded that American schools were not doing well by the gifted, on whom he was sure the country's future depended. By 1921 he had enough academic clout and funding to begin what would become the largest and longest study of high-IQ students. How Terman went about that great experiment and what happened to its subjects ("Termites," as they called themselves) are at the heart of author Joel N. Shurkin's fascinating book.
Characteristically, Terman operated on a grand scale. Dispatching his agents up and down California, he had teachers pick out their brightest students, tested them and, out of thousands of candidates, came up with 643 young "geniuses." (Later he preferred the more modest term "gifted.")
Without doubt, they were an elite group. Their IQs ran from about 140--Terman's minimum for making the cut--to more than 190. Their ages ranged from toddler to high schooler. Boys outnumbered girls by about 10%. Some two-thirds were of British descent, or, as we would now say, WASPs. A tenth were Jewish. Only a tiny smattering were Latino, Mediterranean or African-American; none at all were Chinese.
Terman didn't bother to survey many schools where minorities might be found. He also simply missed some very bright prospects, notably two future Nobel laureates--William Shockley, co-inventor of the transistor, and physicist Luis Alvarez. Shurkin concedes that Terman's work had about it "the smell of racism" and was "wildly skewed against girls."
But if Terman was a creature of his times, he was also methodical, persistent and eager (at least in his own mind) to make his study fair and objective. For more than three decades, he closely followed his beloved kids, subjecting first their parents and later the Termites and even their children (Terman also believed intelligence was largely inherited) to repeated waves of probing questionnaires--asking about achievements in school and on the job, physical and mental health, marital status, even sex, politics and religious bent. Proud to be participants in pioneering research, most cooperated with their ever-inquisitive Stanford mentor. At least one sent his scribbled reply from a World War II foxhole.
Terman died in 1956, just short of his 80th birthday, but his study has been continued by his successors at Stanford. Psychologists still use the half-century of data as benchmarks for their own findings. Even so, the names and files of the Termites have always been kept secret, although about half have already died. Not until Shurkin came along did the guardians of the Terman archives open them up to a journalist.
Shurkin, a veteran science writer and sometime Stanford publicist, wasn't allowed to reveal names either. But he does identify a handful of Termites already publicly known and describes their lives in some detail. The late television writer Jess Oppenheimer overcame an unhappy, vision-impaired childhood to create the smash comedy show "I Love Lucy." Novelist Shelly Smith Mydans roamed the world as a Life reporter and wife of photographer Carl Mydans, surviving a wartime stint in a Japanese prison camp. Nutritionist Ancel Keys invented the "K ration," bane of World War II GIs, and was one of the early advocates of a low-cholesterol diet.