Prodigies at UMD

Were you ready for college at age 14? Age 16?

One of the university’s youngest graduates, William Bridges Smith, enrolled at the University of Maryland in 1958 at age 14. He graduated in 1962 with a B.S. in Electrical Engineering at age 18– the age when many students start college! His photograph in  Biographical Photographs – Print File Collection is nearly identical to his yearbook portrait, enabling us to identify him.

William Bridges Smith_Bio Print File
William Bridges Smith in the University Archives Biographical Print File Collection

William enrolled alongside his 16-year-old brother, Harry Leroy Smith, Jr., who graduated in 3.5 semesters at age 20. Both William and Harry made their marks on the university in spite of concerns over their relative youth. The 1962 Terrapin Yearbook lists William under Who’s Who among Students in American Colleges and Universities in the United States. He is pictured next to Harry under the Omicron Delta Kappa national men’s honor society and among the members of Aiee-Ire (Joint Student Branch of the American Institute of Electrical Engineers and Institute of Radio Engineers). The Terrapin also records the two young students’ membership in Phi Kappa Phi, an honor society for the upper ten percent of the graduating class and from all schools at the university.

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The Baltimore Sun, interested in the story of one of Maryland’s youngest graduates, printed a brief biography of William “Bill” Smith on June 10, 1962. William, who graduated with a 3.02 GPA, was advised by elders (other than his parents) not to start college too early. He commented on their advice, “You’re supposed to get socially maladjusted or something.” Clearly, he did not take their recommendations to heart, as he became involved in Aiee-Ire, AFROTC, the chess team, and the chess club, dated college freshmen, and took 20-23 credits per semester. In his second semester, he dropped out of a social fraternity because he earned B’s instead of A’s. Answering questions about his extensive extracurricular involvements and high academic achievements, he responded, “Some kids will sharpen pencils or play the radio, and wonder at the end of an hour why they haven’t accomplished anything.” Upon graduation, William planned to work at the Bell Labs location in Holmdel, NJ, to pursue his master’s and Ph.D. research.  [1]

Some might call William an over-achiever, but he presented himself as especially motivated. Although the two brothers shadowed each other, the Sun only mentioned Harry Leroy Smith, Jr. in passing.

William Bridges Smith_Baltimore Sun_Photos
Photographs featured above William Smith’s bio in the Baltimore Sun. (Source)

Although William Bridges Smith’s story may seem unusual, University of Maryland history includes multiple high-achieving young students.

For instance, Smith was not the first 14-year-old electrical engineering student to graduate at age 18 from the University of Maryland! That student was Walter Beam, B.S. ’47, M.S. ’50, Ph.D. ’53, the first student to earn a Ph.D. from the Department of Electrical Engineering at the University of Maryland. [2] The University Archives holds Walter Beam’s freshman beanie (below). Beam returned to campus for the 2013 as a Golden Terp (below, second from the right).

One of the university’s most famous prodigies is Charles Fefferman, now a member of the UMD Alumni Hall of Fame. Fefferman graduated with a B.S. in Mathematics at age 17 in 1966. By age 22, he was the youngest full professor at the University of Chicago. He later earned the coveted Fields Prize and is now a mathematics professor at Princeton.[3]

Charles Fefferman delivering a lecture at a University of Maryland Center for Scientific Computation and Mathematical Modeling conference in 2006 (Source)

At a large university like the University of Maryland, these prodigies stand out, and we are glad to share their stories as part of our campus history. Do you have stories of encounters with prodigies on campus?

[1] Anson, Cheril. “Entering Collee at 14, William Smith Got a 4-Year-Head Start.” The Sun (1837-1991), June 10, 1962.




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