27 Geniuses With The Highest IQs In History — And The Surprising True Stories Behind Them
By Austin Harvey | Edited By Jaclyn Anglis
Published June 27, 2023
Updated June 28, 2023
William James Sidis, Marilyn vos Savant, and Leonardo da Vinci have some of the highest IQs in history — but are they really the world's smartest people?
Over the years, intelligence quotient tests, or IQ tests, have been seen as a way to quantify a person’s brainpower. In general terms, the higher a person’s IQ, the more intelligent they are. Naturally, this has sparked conversations about who has the highest IQ in the world — and whether that individual should be considered the smartest person in the world.
Famed physicist Albert Einstein’s name often comes up in conversations like these. He had an estimated IQ of 160, but that is not the highest IQ ever recorded. In fact, there are several child prodigies who have scored higher than Einstein. And public figures like Marilyn vos Savant and Christopher Langan have also been hailed as the smartest people in the world.
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Born on March 14, 1879, Albert Einstein is considered one of the most brilliant minds of all time. The German-born theoretical physicist is best known for his theory of relativity and the mass-energy equivalence formula, E=mc².
Einstein also played an indirect role in the United States' development of nuclear weapons during World War II, as he warned President Franklin Roosevelt that the Nazis had been conducting similar research. However, Einstein later denounced the use of nuclear weapons.
He died on April 18, 1955 at the age of 76, and although his IQ was never officially tested while he was alive, many historians have estimated that it may have been around 160. Public Domain
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Marilyn vos Savant
Born on August 11, 1946, Marilyn vos Savant is an American magazine columnist who was honored in the Guinness Book of Records in 1986 for holding the highest IQ ever recorded: 228.
Her intelligence was cited by two tests, the Stanford-Binet Test and the Mega Test, but just a few years after Savant was given the award, Guinness retired it. By that point, debates about IQ testing had made many people believe that the tests were too unreliable to determine a single person who could hold the record.
Still, Savant remains famous for her high score and she's best known for her “Ask Marilyn” column in Parade magazine, where she answers a wide variety of reader-submitted questions.Twitter
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Ainan Celeste Cawley
Ainan Celeste Cawley was born on November 23, 1999 in Singapore. A child prodigy, he gave his first chemistry lecture at just six years old, and a year later, he passed the General Certificate of Secondary Education, moving on to study chemistry at Singapore Polytechnic by the time he was eight. At age nine, Cawley could recite pi to the 518th decimal and had memorized the periodic table. By age 12, he had composed music for a movie and before long, he had directed a new film. Cawley's IQ has been estimated to be about 263. Though little is known about his life today, he was last reported to be pursuing a career in music as of 2013.Facebook
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Richard "Rick" Rosner
Rick Rosner was born on May 2, 1960 and grew up in Boulder, Colorado. He initially graduated from high school in 1978, but later decided to forge documents so he could attend another high school in New Mexico. He continued to attend different high schools until 1987.
Why would someone do such a thing? According to Rosner, he wanted to perfect his high school experience. Rosner also wanted "one of those desk-chair combinations" to sit at while he pondered his "theory of everything." He eventually learned that he had an IQ of 192.
After graduating high school for the final time, Rosner went on to write quiz shows for MTV and was later hired as a writer and producer for Jimmy Kimmel. Aside from finding success in the television industry, Rosner has also claimed to have worked a number of other jobs throughout the years, including a bouncer, a nude model, and a roller-skating waiter.Twitter
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Christopher Hirata was born on November 30, 1982 in Ypsilanti, Michigan, and it was clear from an early age that he was exceptionally bright. At age 13, he won the gold medal in the 1996 International Physics Olympiad and received his bachelor's degree in physics at Caltech at age 18. With an IQ of 225, Hirata now works as a cosmologist, focusing on topics like Cosmic Microwave Background (CMB), dark energy, and the large-scale structure of the universe. Twitter
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Marie Curie, the Polish-French physicist and chemist, was born Maria Salomea Skłodowska in Warsaw on November 7, 1867. Estimated to have had an IQ of somewhere between 180 and 200, Curie went on to become the first woman to win the Nobel Prize — and the first person ever to win it twice. Focusing on radioactivity for most of her career, Curie also played a major role in radiological service for the international Red Cross during World War I. She died on July 4, 1934 at age 66. Sadly, her exposure to radiation during her life was ultimately what killed her.Public Domain
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Born March 25, 1952 in San Francisco, California, Christopher Langan had a rough upbringing, but showed incredible promise academically. In elementary school, he skipped a number of grades. And in high school, he found himself so unchallenged by the material that he started teaching himself "advanced math, physics, philosophy, Latin, and Greek, all that."
Despite taking a nap during the SAT, Langan earned a perfect score on the exam and earned a full scholarship to Reed College. But when his mother failed to send over important forms securing his scholarship, he dropped out. Still, Langan, whose IQ has been estimated to be between 195 and 210, made a name for himself as "the smartest man in the world" while working odd jobs, such as a construction worker, a fitness trainer, and a bouncer.
Unfortunately, Langan eventually tarnished his own legacy by subscribing to several conspiracy theories as a 9/11 truther and a believer in the white replacement theory. Facebook
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At just five years old, Edith Stern's IQ was estimated to be as high as 205.
Born in 1952, Edith Stern was the child of Aaron and Bella Stern, who met while living in a ghetto in Warsaw. Aaron Stern, a scholar, pushed his daughter into academics almost immediately after she was born. By age two, Edith Stern had mastered the alphabet, and by age three, she knew how to play chess. She enrolled in college at 12 years old, and she was teaching mathematics at a college level by age 15.
Edith Stern eventually went on to become the Vice President for Research and Development at IBM. She also made a name for herself as a talented inventor and holds over 100 patents.Twitter
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Garry Kasparov was born on April 13, 1963 in Baku, Azerbaijan, when it was part of the Soviet Union. A brilliant chess master, Kasparov became the youngest world chess champion at the age of 22, defeating reigning champion Anatoly Karpov. He continued to be a formidable player in the world of professional chess until retiring in 2005. Kasparov would later work as a writer and political activist, speaking out against Vladimir Putin in particular. It's been estimated in the past that Kasparov has an IQ of about 190, but, funnily enough, when he actually took an IQ test in 1987, he only scored 135. Wikimedia Commons
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Born on February 16, 1822, Sir Francis Galton was a brilliant English polymath whose work actually helped inspire the first IQ test. It's been estimated that his IQ would've been around 200.
But while Galton was an esteemed explorer and anthropologist who created the first weather map, he was also a proponent of horrific fields of study like eugenics and scientific racism, which he supported until his death in 1911.Public Domain
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One of the most widely-known English scholars of his time, Sir Isaac Newton was born on December 25, 1642. He went on to become a brilliant mathematician and physicist who played a major role in the Scientific Revolution and the Enlightenment. Newton is perhaps most famous for discovering the laws of gravity, but he also made many other significant contributions to science and math like working out the principles of visible light and helping develop calculus. Though he died long before the creation of the first IQ test, historians have estimated Newton's IQ to be around 190.Wikimedia Commons
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William James Sidis
Believed by some to be the smartest man who ever lived, William James Sidis was a child prodigy born on April 1, 1898, in New York City.
By the time he was just 18 months old, he could read The New York Times. When Sidis was six, he could speak multiple languages, including English, French, German, Russian, Hebrew, and Turkish. At one point, he even invented a brand-new language of his own. Sidis began his education at Harvard at age 11 and graduated at just 16. Perhaps most astounding, his IQ was estimated to be between 250 and 300.
But as an adult, he had no interest in changing the world or staying in the limelight. Instead, he lived much of his life in seclusion, taking on menial jobs and later dying of a cerebral hemorrhage at age 46 — penniless and alone.Wikimedia Commons
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Born on November 19, 1904, in Chicago, Illinois, Nathan Leopold was, like many others on this list, a child prodigy. With an IQ of 200, Leopold graduated from the University of Chicago when he was just 18 years old and seemed to be destined for great things. But instead, he decided to use his intelligence for evil.
Leopold teamed up with another intelligent young man, Richard Loeb, to brutally murder a 14-year-old boy named Bobby Franks — just to commit the "perfect crime." Leopold and Loeb were convinced that their high intellect and privilege would allow them to get away with killing Franks. But their disturbing plan didn't work, and both Leopold and Loeb were soon arrested and sentenced to life in prison.
Loeb was ultimately killed in prison by another inmate, but Leopold was eventually paroled in 1958 and relocated to Puerto Rico, where he lived out the rest of his days in relative peace until his death from a heart attack in 1971.Wikimedia Commons
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Widely believed to be the best female chess player in history, Judit Polgár was born on July 23, 1976 in Budapest, Hungary. She and her sisters were pushed by their father, László Polgár, to play chess intensely from an early age, a controversial experiment to show that children could succeed at any subject if they were pushed hard enough. Judit Polgár was by far the most successful of the sisters — she beat her father in a chess game by age 5 and was named the world's top-ranked female chess player by the time she was 12. She eventually reached the top 10 of all chess players in the world, and she remains the only woman ever to do so. Her IQ is believed to be about 170.Wikimedia Commons
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Kim Ung-yong is a South Korean child prodigy with an IQ estimated to be about 210. Born on March 8, 1962 in Seoul, Kim showed incredible academic promise before he was even a year old, learning the entire Korean alphabet and more than 1,000 Chinese characters. By age three, Kim had written several essays in English and German and could solve calculus problems. Word of Kim's intelligence quickly spread, and he was eventually recruited to be a NASA researcher at the age of eight. As an adult, he's been employed by various universities and he eventually became vice president of the North Kyeong-gi Development Research Center. Facebook
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Born around 350 C.E. in Alexandria, Egypt, Hypatia was one of the world's first female mathematicians and astronomers. With an estimated IQ of between 170 and 210, she achieved high acclaim throughout her life as a wise teacher and philosopher. But around the year 415 C.E., Hypatia suddenly met a brutal death at the hands of Christian zealots who were furious about her paganism. Wikimedia Commons
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Leonardo da Vinci
One of history's most influential and renowned geniuses, Leonardo da Vinci was born on April 15, 1452. An Italian polymath, da Vinci is perhaps best known for his incredible paintings, including the Mona Lisa and the Last Supper. But he was also a talented sculptor, engineer, and scientist whose work was centuries ahead of his time. Though he died in 1519, long before the days of IQ testing, it's estimated that his IQ would've been about 220 when he was alive.Wikimedia Commons
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A renowned composer and multi-instrument musician, Marnen Laibow-Koser was born in 1974 in Dobbs Ferry, New York. He began studying and playing music at the young age of three, and shortly after that, he became a composer. Laibow-Koser specializes in the flute, viola, piano, and fiddle, but he also has other interests outside of music, including computer science and folk dancing. It's been estimated that he has an IQ of about 268.Twitter
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Born in 1954, Michael Grost showed such promise as a child prodigy that he started attending courses at Michigan State University when he was just 10 years old. A brilliant mathematician with an estimated IQ of 200, he went on to become an acclaimed computer scientist. Grost also enjoys creating abstract paintings and listening to classical music. Mike Tomkow/Michael Grost
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Michael Kearney was born on January 18, 1984, in Honolulu, Hawaii. With an estimated IQ of 200, Kearney graduated from high school at the age of six and went on to attend various universities as a child and teenager. After he was done with school, he earned several cash prizes on popular game shows like Gold Rush and Who Wants to be a Millionaire? Kearney then decided to start performing for the Nashville Improv, making use of his "collection of useless information."Twitter
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Born on July 10, 1856 in Smiljan, then part of the Austrian Empire, Nikola Tesla was a Serbian American inventor and engineer who went on to become one of the most famous innovators in history. Developing the alternating-current power system and pioneering radio communication, Tesla was estimated to have had an IQ at least as high as 160 and perhaps even as high as 310. But unfortunately for him, his genius couldn't save him from dying alone and in debt at age 86, accompanied only by his beloved pigeons and an increasing obsession with the numbers 3, 6, and 9.Public Domain
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Born in 1954 in Akure, Nigeria, Philip Emeagwali grew up in an impoverished family of war refugees. But he showed such academic promise as a mathematician that he was able to earn degrees from the University of London, George Washington University, and the University of Maryland as a young man. Emeagwali later went on to become "a father of the internet," coming up with an innovative formula that used 65,000 computer processors to perform 3.1 billion calculations per second in 1989. He is believed to have an IQ of about 190.Wikimedia Commons
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Sho Yano was born in 1990 in Portland, Oregon. A child prodigy with an estimated IQ of 200, he entered Loyola University when he was just nine years old. By the time he was 13, he had begun his studies at the University of Chicago's Pritzker School of Medicine. Sometimes called the "real-life Doogie Howser," Yano went on to become a renowned physician as a young man.Facebook
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A renowned English theoretical physicist, Stephen Hawking was born on January 8, 1942, in Oxford. Despite receiving a challenging diagnosis of motor neuron disease before the age of 21, Hawking didn't give up on completing his doctorate. He went on to become an accomplished scientist known for his studies of relativity and black holes. While Hawking's medical condition presented several obstacles, he lived decades longer than medical experts expected him to, dying at age 76 in 2018. His IQ was estimated to be about 160, but he never took a test. And when he was asked what his IQ was, he famously said, "I have no idea. People who boast about their IQ are losers."Wikimedia Commons
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Known as the "Mozart of mathematics," Terence Tao was born on July 17, 1975, in Adelaide, Australia. A child prodigy, Tao taught himself to read at the age of two and was taking high school math courses by the time he was seven. He would later go on to win several prestigious awards, including the Fields Medal, which is widely considered the Nobel Prize for mathematicians. Now a professor of mathematics at the University of California, Los Angeles, Tao is estimated to have an IQ of at least 225. Despite this, he is known for being humble — and insisting that one doesn't need to be a "genius" to contribute to mathematics.Twitter
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Born François-Marie Arouet in Paris on November 21, 1694, Voltaire was one of the most renowned French writers of all time. Famous for works such as the tragic play Zaïre, the fictitious Lettres philosophiques, and the satirical novella Candide, Voltaire often found himself in trouble with French authorities over his politically charged writing. Nevertheless, he had become an iconic figure of the Enlightenment by the time of his death in 1778. He is believed to have had an IQ of between 190 and 200.Public Domain
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A German playwright, poet, and novelist, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe was born on August 28, 1749. Known for the novel The Sorrows of Young Werther and the tragic play Faust, Goethe remains a legendary author to this day. Also a scientist and statesman, he was believed to have had an IQ between 210 and 225.Public Domain
27 Geniuses With The Highest IQs In History — And The Surprising True Stories Behind Them
Of course, IQ tests do have limitations and many have questioned whether or not they should be used as a determination of a person's intellect. There is also a dark history behind some IQ tests, as they've been used in the past to discriminate against people belonging to certain racial and ethnic groups.
What's more, both the reliability and efficacy of IQ tests have frequently been called into question. Some experts have suggested that they may be less an indicator of intelligence and more an indicator of a person's motivational level, quality of schooling, health status, and other variables.
That said, it's fascinating to read the true stories behind the people with the highest IQs in the world. Learn about these individuals in the photo gallery above, then read more about the complicated history of IQ testing below.
The Creation Of The First IQ Test
In the late 1800s and the early 1900s, a great deal of interest was stirring in the scientific community regarding research on intelligence. Early works on the subject were published by Sir Francis Galton, the founder of differential psychology, who believed that intelligence was hereditary and could be determined by observing how a person performed sensorimotor tasks.
According to Verywell Mind, these tasks involve the human brain receiving a message, and then producing a response (like slowing down after you see someone in front of you slowing down). Galton, an English polymath, often used statistics while explaining how to measure a person's intelligence.
Public DomainAlfred Binet, the French psychologist who developed the first IQ test, known as the Binet-Simon Scale.
Around the turn of the century, a French lawyer-turned-psychologist by the name of Alfred Binet became fascinated by Galton's work. He too began research into the development of tests to measure intelligence, which were put to wide-scale use in 1904 when the French government enlisted Binet's help to try and determine which children would struggle the most in school.
Binet and his colleague Theodore Simon then created a test comprised of a series of questions focused on skills such as attention and problem-solving — not necessarily skills that were taught in classrooms, but skills that could possibly affect a child's ability to learn. This 30-question test became known as the Binet-Simon Scale, the first officially recognized IQ test.
The Evolution Of Testing Intelligence
Over time, the Binet-Simon Scale was improved upon — first by Stanford University psychologist Lewis Terman, who standardized the test and used two scales of measurement in his revision, rather than one, to provide more accurate results. He also translated the test into English in 1916.
A year later, psychologist Robert Yerkes developed two IQ tests for the U.S. Army, the Alpha and Beta tests. The Alpha test was a written exam, while the Beta test was made up of pictures for recruits who couldn't read or who weren't fluent in English. Both tests were designed to help the Army determine which recruits might be good fits for specific roles in the military.
Unfortunately, IQ tests like these were also used to screen immigrants entering the United States, which led government officials to impose discriminatory restrictions on groups who supposedly had "inferior" IQs.
Public DomainPsychologist David Wechsler, who published a new intelligence test in 1955 called the Wechsler Adult Intelligence Scale.
Then, in 1955, American psychologist David Wechsler created a new intelligence test known as the Wechsler Adult Intelligence Scale (WAIS). Wechsler strongly believed that intelligence should be measured by comparing the scores of test takers within the same age group.
Several revisions were made to Wechsler's system, eventually evolving into the WAIS-IV, which is the modern standard for intelligence testing. Using this standard, the average score is fixed at 100, with two-thirds of test takers landing somewhere in the normal range of between 85 and 115.
Today, when we look at candidates for the highest IQ ever recorded, this is generally the scale that we're using (or an estimate that's based on this scale). In theory, the higher a person's score, the more intelligent they are — though this has also been called into question over the years.
Who Has The Highest IQ In The World?
Even with the standardization of IQ tests and the numerous revisions made to them over time, it's still not quite so simple to identify the highest IQ ever. There are, of course, people whose scores extend upwards into the high 100s and even into the 200s, but shockingly, some of the world's smartest people have much lower scores than you might expect.
Albert Einstein, for example, is widely regarded as one of the most brilliant minds in all of history, yet his IQ was only estimated to be around 160 — still well above the average, but not a forerunner for the highest IQ in the world. And Stephen Hawking's IQ has been estimated to be the same number.
You'd be hard pressed to find anyone arguing that Einstein and Hawking were unintelligent, of course, but from a purely statistical viewpoint, their estimated scores pale in comparison to the scores of William James Sidis and Marilyn vos Savant. Sidis was a child prodigy with an estimated IQ of anywhere between 250 and 300; Savant's IQ has been recorded as 228.
Public DomainAlbert Einstein's IQ was never officially tested, but some sources have estimated his IQ to be around 160.
But IQ tests are not a perfect measure of intelligence. Critics have often called them "fundamentally flawed," and the discussion also raises the question of what, exactly, it means to be one of the world's smartest people.
Take Christopher Langan, for example. Langan's IQ falls somewhere between 195 and 210, leading some to call him the "smartest man in the world." However, Langan also happens to be a 9/11 truther and a believer in the white replacement theory who, in 2018, wrote a Facebook obituary for Koko the gorilla, then asserted that Western countries should admit gorillas as immigrants instead of Somalis, claiming that gorillas are more intelligent.
Because of this, some have called him "Alex Jones with a thesaurus."
Langan is an unusual example, but one that highlights the flaws of using IQ tests as a determiner of the smartest people in the world.
The "Fundamentally Flawed" Nature Of IQ Tests
As a report from The Independent explains, a 2012 study found that IQ tests fail to accurately represent the complex nature of human intellect.
"The results disprove once and for all the idea that a single measure of intelligence, such as IQ, is enough to capture all of the differences in cognitive ability that we see between people," said Roger Highfield, the director of external affairs at the Science Museum in London.
Researchers analyzed a sample of 46,000 individuals from around the world who filled out an online survey where they were asked to complete 12 mental tests to measure different aspects of their cognitive ability.
In the end, they determined that no single measure of intelligence could represent the variations seen among the three distinct components of cognitive ability: short-term memory, a verbal component, and reasoning.
"It has always seemed to be odd that we like to call the human brain the most complex known object in the Universe, yet many of us are still prepared to accept that we can measure brain function by doing a few so-called IQ tests," Highfield said. "For a century or more many people have thought that we can distinguish between people, or indeed populations, based on the idea of general intelligence which is often talked about in terms of a single number: IQ. We have shown here that's just wrong."
Does this mean IQ tests are completely useless? Not necessarily. But they shouldn't be used alone to determine the smartest people in the world.
A staff writer for All That's Interesting, Austin Harvey has also had work published with Discover Magazine, Giddy, and Lucid covering topics on mental health, sexual health, history, and sociology. He holds a Bachelor's degree from Point Park University.
Jaclyn is the senior managing editor at All That's Interesting. She holds a Master's degree in journalism from the City University of New York and a Bachelor's degree in English writing and history (double major) from DePauw University. She is interested in American history, true crime, modern history, pop culture, and science.