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The Secret IQ Diaries : They Were Guinea Pigs in the Longest-Running Psychological Study Ever, Their Identities Largely Kept a Mystery. Now in Their 80s, the 'Children' of Lewis Terman Are Still Defining What It Really Means to Be A Genius.

July 30, 1995|Richard C. Paddock | Richard C. Paddock covers Northern California for The Times

The boy who would grow up to direct "The Caine Mutiny" was a 13-year-old student at Lockwood Street School on the fringes of Hollywood when he was discovered by Lewis M. Terman, the inventor of the modern-day IQ test. It was 1922, and the Stanford University professor had dispersed a small flock of assistants to test children around the state.

Even now, nearly three-quarters of a century later, 86-year-old Edward Dmytryk can sit in his Encino home, encircled by the memorabilia of his movie career, and evoke that first milestone in his life: getting out of class, riding the Yellow Car to school district headquarters Downtown to sit in a row of desks with other kids and take the great psychologist's newfangled test. He didn't know what he was part of then, but he was in his element.

"The testing went on for three straight days," he recalls. "I was excused from school. And I loved it. A lot of the things [on the test] were puzzles. They'd give you a seven-integer number and tell you to say it backward right away."

The test was a three-day lark for Dmytryk, a respite from a brutal father who sometimes shredded his schoolbooks. For Terman it was proof that here was another "gifted child"--a phrase he coined--and he added the youngster to the long list for his landmark research group. In newspaper stories across Depression-era America, they would be known as the "1,000 Gifted Children." To these kids--actually 1,528 of them, mostly Californians--Terman became both surrogate father and academic spy, monitoring their progress from afar, guiding their careers and, often enough, meddling in their lives. Neither he nor the children realized then that Terman would be part of their lives for decades, longer in some cases than jobs, parents, spouses.

For more than seven decades, as they grew from prodigies to octogenarians, and even after Terman's death, they have been guinea pigs in the longest-running psychological study ever conducted. Known now as the "Termites," these students have helped shape the modern understanding of genius. "Practically everything we know today about gifted children and their development came from this one study," said the late Robert Sears, himself a Termite, who was a Stanford psychology professor and headed the study after Terman's death.

Almost from the beginning, Terman's work deflated the long-held stereotype of gifted children as nerdy, four-eyed weaklings who would degenerate early in life into mediocrity or insanity. Rather, the study has shown that gifted children tend to be healthier, stronger and more successful, and maintain their intellects into old age. It also contradicted one of Terman's expectations, that IQ had more to do with heredity than with parents' encouragement and expectations.

Terman and Dmytryk would never meet, but they corresponded for decades. To have sought him out in person, says Dmytryk now, would be "like looking for your parents if you're an adopted child. It's a waste of time." The professor kept watch over Dmytryk as the youngster ran away from home, got a job as a movie studio messenger and worked his way through high school; the professor applauded as Dmytryk became a film editor and an award-winning movie director. When Dmytryk was blacklisted and imprisoned as one of the Hollywood Ten, Terman was disheartened. When Dmytryk revived his career, making noted films that included "The Caine Mutiny" with Humphrey Bogart and "Raintree County" with Elizabeth Taylor and Montgomery Clift, Terman congratulated him like a proud father.

Terman is long dead, but his successors at Stanford still keep tabs on the movie director, who writes books and teaches film courses at USC, as well as some 500 other survivors among the "little geniuses." Researchers intend to track the Termites until the last one dies--most likely around the year 2010--amassing a database that is a treasure trove for researchers. This spring, Stanford published the study's fifth volume. The data is still being tapped to discern the answers Terman sought: What makes someone smart? Do brains guarantee success? Does brilliance last a lifetime?

But in the 1990s, the findings are less compelling than the personalities of Terman and his gifted children. The confidential files, opened to The Times for this story, are a window into the tumultuous times of Californians whose lives spanned most of the century. Over the years, the names of only about 30 Termites have emerged publicly; at Stanford's request, the others remain anonymous.

The confidential files show that Terman was proud of them all: the Life magazine war correspondent captured by the Japanese; the scientist who discovered the link between cholesterol and heart disease; the nuclear physicist who helped make the atom bomb; the Hollywood scriptwriter who created "I Love Lucy." (He was equally fond of his non-starters--the potter committed to a mental hospital, the owner of the greasy spoon, the short-story writer who cleaned swimming pools.)

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