8 People Who Received Their PhDs Before Age 20

Illustration by Christian Sager

One of the most important lessons I learned in graduate school was that having a PhD does not make someone a genius. More than anything it's indicative of discipline and perseverance. In the case of child prodigies who push that hard, it can lead to dysfunction with their family or a falling out with academia. Not every kid genius is happy, but these eight individuals show us how they came out on the other side, dedicated to improving the world around them.

Karl Witte
Illustration by Christian Sager

One way to help your kid become a prodigy is to turn them into an experiment for an extreme learning program so you can write a book about it. That's what Karl Heinrich Gottfried Witte did to his son, making sure he spoke 5 languages by the time he was 9 years old. Also named Karl, his son was 13 when he earned a doctorate in philosophy from the University of Giessen in Germany in 1814. The younger Witte eventually became a scholar on Dante Alighieri because when your father uses you as a guinea pig, life must seem like a divine comedy indeed.

Kim Ung-Yong
Illustration by Christian Sager

Born in 1963, Kim Ung-Yong has an IQ of 210, started university when he was 3 and got his PhD at 15. He also started working for NASA when he was 8 years old and continued there while finishing graduate school. Kim doesn't look back on that time fondly, recalling being lonely. Today he's working at Chungbuk National University and contends that we shouldn't judge a person's accomplishments solely by their academic success.

Balamural Ambati
Illustration by Christian Sager

Unlike Kim Ung-Yong, Balamural Ambati is happy with being a former child prodigy and the world's youngest doctor. He says graduating from the Mount Sinai School of Medicine at 17 has given him time for other life experiences. As a specialist in ophthalmology, Ambati has written over 40 peer-reviewed publications, including a book on AIDS (co-written with his brother when he was 11).

Ruth Lawerence
Illustration by Christian Sager

Math whiz Ruth Lawrence finished her PhD at Oxford University at the age of 17. Today she's recognized as a scholar in algebraic topology and knot theory. Even though she's an academic, Lawrence won't encourage her own children to follow her own stringent studying practices. Her father attended all of her classes with her at Oxford and tutored Lawrence. They even rode to school together on a tandem bicycle.

Norbert Weiner
Illustration by Christian Sager

Not all child geniuses are in a rush to get to the PhD finish line. Norbert Weiner was originally a mathematics prodigy, finishing his bachelor's degree from Tuft's College at the age of 14. In graduate school he switched to zoology before his father steered him back toward mathematics and philosophy. Weiner received a PhD in Mathematical Logic from Harvard when he was 17. He went on to coin the term "cybernetics" and work in automation, journalism and communication theory.

Sho Yano
Illustration by Christian Sager

Graduating summa cum laude from Loyola University when he was 12 years old, Sho Yano's mother had long since realized she couldn't slow his progress if she wanted to. Despite his speed at learning, she felt he was still enjoying life. He kept cruising through school and got his PhD in Molecular Genetics and Cell Biology from the University of Chicago at age 18, followed by his MD from the same school at 21.

Juliet Beni
Illustration by Christian Sager

Beating her sister Catherine by one year, Juliet Beni received a PhD in Psychology from the University of California, Riverside when she was only 19. Both Beni sisters were home schooled by their father and then took community college classes as a means of preparation for four-year schools. After her 2012 graduation, Juliet is now working toward becoming a medical doctor. At her current rate of acceleration, she'll probably be one by the end of this week.

Charles Homer Haskins
Illustration by Christian Sager

President Woodrow Wilson made former child prodigy Charles Homer Haskins a member of an inquiry tasked with settling territorial disputes after World War I. Haskins' solution for the former German state of Saarland was accepted, changing who occupied and governed the area. Before deciding these circumstances however, Haskins graduated from John Hopkins University at the age of 19. His focus was in history and he went on to teach at both Wisconsin University and Harvard University as an important medieval historian.