Thursday, August 24, 2006

Pooze the Prodigy

On a farm southwest of my hometown, Milford, Indiana, on July 30, 1880, Arthur F. Griffith was born. Somewhere along the line, for unknown reasons, he acquired the nickname of Pooze. I tried to find a definition of this word, and all I could find was in an online urban dictionary, which defined pooze as either the anus or the female genitalia. I doubt that those meanings applied in the late 19th century. Like most of us from Milford, Arthur might have lived in relative obscurity except for one inexplicable trait. He was a mathematical prodigy. He was able to count to 25,000 at age five, and memorized the multiplication tables through 130. He developed 47 methods of multiplication, 6 methods each for division and addition, and one for subtraction. He could tell you the date of Easter Sunday for any year in the 20th century. He was able to extract cube roots from numbers of 6 figures in seconds. He could watch a train of 100 cars go by on the Big Four tracks in Milford, and memorize the numbers painted on the sides. Arthur had no talent for nonmathematical subjects and didn't go to school beyond the eighth grade. So amazing were his abilities that he was studied by scientists at universities including Indiana University and Yale. His case was presented to the International Psychological Congress in Paris in 1900.

His head was so large, he had to have his hats custom made.

At one point, he said he would publish a book of this methods, but never did. He toured as a vaudeville act, and in 1902 was sentenced to 30 days in the Osceola County, Michigan jail, for failure to pay a boarding house bill. In 1907, he was working as a blacksmith's helper in St. Louis. He became so upset when he wasn't paid for the work he did, he was declared insane and put in the city hospital. He recovered, and was released after a period of observation. He never married, and when he wasn't touring or being studied at a university, he lived with his parents on the same farm where he was born.

Arthur had a history of epilepsy. Were some of his strange behaviors due to a brain lesion? For that matter, was there some structural "defect" of his brain that gave him his incredible mathematical abilities? We'll never know. He died in 1911, at age 31, in Springfield, Massachusetts, presumably on tour. The cause of death was apoplexy, which nowadays would be called a stroke. Perhaps he had a vascular malformation of the brain which ruptured. Again, I can only speculate. Thirty-one was pretty young to have a stroke, even in 1911.

One reason I'm posting this is that there is virtually nothing about dear old Pooze online, and I don't want to see such an amazing character forgotten. So now my vast audience knows his story.

ADDENDUM - 9/11/06:

I have found some more source material and need to correct a couple things in the original post: First, Arthur did publish a book of his methods, entitled The Easy and Speedy Reckoner in 1901. Copies still exist in the Library of Congress and in the Math Library at the University of Illinois. BTW, http://www.worldcat.orgis a great web site that tells you where books are located beginning with libraries closest to your zip code. Second, although Arthur had epilepsy, his seizures started after an unspecified illness at age 7, after he had started to display his calculating abilities, so the two weren't related. Third, he should be called a mental calculator rather than a math prodigy, as he didn't understand or have an interest in learning algebra. He was blessed with a fantastic memory and developed many calculating shortcuts.

1 comment:

E. M. Atwater said...

Kinda makes me wonder about that idiot savant thang I wrote a while back...

Good stuff, Maynard!

E

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