• U.S.

Behavior: Achievement and Illness

2 minute read

The sicker when young, the brighter when grown? It seems an unlikely proposition, but Psychologist Robert Helmreich of the University of Texas at Austin and Psychiatrist William Prescott of the U.S. Public Health Service in San Juan, P.R., argue that it is true. The Teddy Roosevelt effect, Helmreich calls it, after the President who emerged from a sickly childhood into an adulthood of endeavor and accomplishment.

Via closed-circuit TV, the researchers watched 50 scientists of the Interior Department’s Tektite program as they made underwater observations of deep-sea phenomena off the coast of the Virgin Islands. The scientist-crews went down in a submersible habitat in groups of five and remained submerged fathoms deep for two or three weeks at a time.

To their surprise, the watching scientists found a reverse correlation between performance and early health. As youngsters, the best-performing Tektite scientists had been in much poorer health than most of their schoolmates. On the average, they stayed home sick two weeks every year. By comparison, other healthy adults report that they were sick only one week each year while they were growing up. Moreover, Helmreich reports, “We found a definite correlation between how many days an aquanaut was sick as a child and how well he performed in Tektite. The more he stayed home sick as a child, the better he tended to perform as an aquanaut.”

At first Helmreich and Prescott attributed the phenomenon to the intellectual stimulation mothers provide in trying to cope with the restlessness of bedridden youngsters. The researchers had to discard the theory when they also found the Teddy Roosevelt effect in Navy enlisted men who came, not from middle-and upper-middle-class homes like those of the aquanauts, but from lower-middle-class backgrounds that did not encourage study or reading. An alternative explanation, suggests Helmreich, may be that “children who are sick more often are more isolated from others of their own age and so they tend to use adults as their models.” This may make them pursue difficult goals early in life, so that they establish habits of striving that persist to adulthood.

More Must-Reads from TIME

Contact us at letters@time.com