I remember my brother telling me an anecdote about Carl F. Gauss three-four years ago, I want to know if anybody here also know about it, or can provide the source of it. The anecdote goes like this

One day Carl came from school, he was probably a kid of 9 or 10 years, and smilingly handed a letter to his mother and said

“Mother, my teacher has given me this letter and told me to hand over it to you without reading it”.

His mother opened the letter and read it (in her mind, not loud out), after reading it she remain quiet for few minutes. Gauss asked her many times about what was written in the letter, finally she replied

“Your teacher has written that you have far more ability than what the school can offer and develop, so your teacher suggested you to leave the school and work on your own great mind, develop it by your own as no one is able enough to teach you my child”

After that, Gauss became an autodidact, motivated by the letter and did many charismatic works in Mathematics. Things went on good, Mathematical societies were surprised by his discoveries. After many years when his mother died, he became sad and tried to go for her things, suddenly in her old box he found that same letter and read it, something like this was written in it

“We are sorry Mrs. Gauss but your son Carl is a very stupid kid and we cannot keep him in our school anymore.”

Gauss murmured “It’s my mother who has made me what I am, It’s only because of my mother that I have reached here in my life"

Well, the thing is that wikipedia asserts that Carl was a prodigy but being a prodigy doesn't at all means that one would perform outstandingly in school, he might be disagreeing with his teachers and that could have made them angry to write that letter.

Actually, I request you all to tell me if you have every heard this kind of anecdotes about any other mathematicians, as there are chances that my brother could be mistaken, but I'm sure he didn't make up that story, he would have read it somewhere. So, this kind of story is important as it shows up the effect of encouragement in developing someone's life, especially an intellectual life.

Please help me in finding the source of this story or at least let me know if you ever came to hear about an anecdote like this.

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    $\begingroup$ The same story is told of Edison. A search for "Edison mother letter" gives scores of hits about this story. $\endgroup$
    – vonbrand
    Jun 28, 2021 at 17:41

2 Answers 2


The following is taken from the book

Walter K. Buhler, "Gauss: a biographical study." Springer Verlag, 1981.

Only a very few characteristic and interesting facts are known from the childhood and youth of Gauss. Basically, we have to satisfy ourselves with the bare data of his biography and that kind of information which can be induced from a general familiarity with the social and political situation of the time. Our only major specific source is Gauss himself; the stories of his childhood that he liked to tell as an old man were preserved and transmitted by his students and friends and are now part of our traditional picture of Gauss. Many of these anecdotes cannot be substantiated, nor are they of serious interest.

The story told by your brother appears to be one of these anecdotes and its essence is inconsistent with the known facts (see below).

Neither of Gauss's parents had much education: his father, as we can gather from his jobs, at least could read and write; he also knew elementary arithmetic. His mother probably could read, but not write.* Gauss does not seem to have been close to his father, and we know from later remarks that he traced his genius back to his mother.

Thus, we do not even know for fact that Gauss mother could read.

The factual information that is available to us starts with the year 1784 when the young Carl Friedrich entered elementary school. That he actually went to school was not unusual at the time, for children who grew up in a major city usually had this opportunity. He was unusually lucky in another way, for his teacher, Buttner, seems to have been competent and concerned. He took a personal interest in the boy, trying to help and encourage him. In retrospect, it is easy to see how the bright youngster must have excelled among the other students.

...Gauss reportedly knew how to read and write before entering school, skills he appears to have picked up without any help from his parents. When he was barely three years old he could count and perform elementary calculations. Buttner was impressed by the boy; in 1786 he obtained from Hamburg a special arithmetic text for his exceptional student—there was nothing in the standard primers which would have been new to him. Biittner's assistant during these years was Martin Bartels (1769— 1836), later professor of mathematics at the University of Kazan and only eight years older than Gauss. He soon recognized Gauss's genius and devoted special attention to the young Carl Friedrich. We do not know how the parents encouraged their prodigious son, if they did so at all; the times, against a background of need and poverty, were utilitarian and not conducive to appreciating the advantages of good schooling and academic success. The parents' benevolent but disinterested astonishment at their son's achievements was most certainly not coupled with any expectation of an extraordinary career. In their narrow and limited world, after all, there were more important and promising gifts for a son of a dependent laborer to have than a curious facility in counting and arithmetic.

Of course, it is your choice whom to believe, but if you are interested in knowing facts, I suggest you ask your brother for the source of his story. As for the sentiment expressed in your comment that

"Something like that must have happened that’s why we got some story like this, else it is not possible to totally make up a story like that."

it strikes me a counter-factual. (Some) people make up stories all the time with no basis whatsoever, or misremember or/and misattribute stories that have heard. It reminds me one of the Radio Yerevan jokes:

Radio Yerevan was asked: "Is it correct that Grigori Grigorievich Grigoriev won a luxury car at the All-Union Championship in Moscow?"

Radio Yerevan answered: "In principle, yes. But first of all it was not Grigori Grigorievich Grigoriev, but Vassili Vassilievich Vassiliev; second, it was not at the All-Union Championship in Moscow, but at a Collective Farm Sports Festival in Smolensk; third, it was not a car, but a bicycle; and fourth he didn't win it, but rather it was stolen from him."

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    $\begingroup$ Ah, yes, the "radio Yerevan" jokes make many good points. :) $\endgroup$ Jun 2, 2020 at 16:26
  • $\begingroup$ Interesting about Gauss' dad -- the way I remember the story of his first indications of brilliance wherein he says about his father's bookkeeping, "the reckoning is wrong" and rather than being impressed with the 3 year old he was told to get back to work gathering straw for bricks or whatever and it was only by luck years later that he had a teacher who recognized (and cared) that Gauss might be something unusual -- it does not always happen that way and Gauss is not the only genius who was discovered luckily; Ramanujan was another. $\endgroup$
    – releseabe
    Jul 21, 2020 at 7:47

This story has often been associated with Thomas Edison but is, in fact, a made-up anecdote. The origin of this story is because of the fact that Edison spent only a few months in a formal classroom before being taken out of school and educated by his mother, who was a teacher by training.

According to a U.S. Library of Congress biography of Edison, he was indeed labelled “addled” by a school administrator, an event that led his mother to remove him from school. Still, this information was not conveyed to her in a letter, nor was it hidden by her from young Thomas:

Edison was a poor student. When a schoolmaster called Edison “addled,” his furious mother took him out of the school and proceeded to teach him at home. Edison said many years later, “My mother was the making of me. She was so true, so sure of me, and I felt I had someone to live for, someone I must not disappoint.”

  • $\begingroup$ Well calling something a made-up anecdote is not always right. The most we can say is that it’s not completely true. Something like that must have happened that’s why we got some story like this, else it is not possible to totally make up a story like that. By the way, thank you very much for your answer, it’s really helpful and informative. $\endgroup$ May 28, 2020 at 17:33
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    $\begingroup$ @Knight, there are many spectacular stories only told to show famous people as geniuses or someone to sympathise with. As an example, you may see this answer of mine. $\endgroup$ May 28, 2020 at 19:03

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