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History of Mensa - from Britain to the world

 Soon after WW2 in Oxford (1946), two men met on a train and started talking. One was Roland Berrill (1897–1962), an Australian ex-pat bar­rister who never practised at the Bar but lived on the payments from his investments. The other was Dr Lancelot Lionel Ware (1915–2000), work­ing in law and science. They began talking about intelligence testing, a topic of great interest to Ware, who was working at the National Institute for Medical Re­search.

In Oxford, they discussed the formation of a club dedic­ated to intelligence. There they formed The High IQ Club, with Berrill doing the funding. They chose the name Mensa because it meant altar tab­le in Latin and was also suggestive of the Latin words for mind and month i.e monthly meeting of great minds around a tab­le. Berrill had the first Mensa literature printed in Oct 1946 in Caythorpe Lincolnshire.

 Roland Berrill and Lancelot Ware

The constitution of Mensa International was formulated and the first international elections were held in 1964. The constitution listed the organisation’s main purposes: to
1. identify & foster human intelligence to benefit humanity.
2. encourage research into the nature & uses of intelligence.
3. provide an intellectual & social environment for members.

Other goals of the organisation were the further­ance of literacy and programmes to develop the minds of gifted child­ren. Mensa also provided contact between people of high intellect, both for professional and social purposes.

There were no educational requirements for membership, nor stip­ul­ations about gender, age, race, creed, colour or national origin. The majority (66%) of members were male, the youngest memb­ers just 2 years old and the oldest members were 100+. Members have included both obscure and famous persons, including writers and scientists.

Intelligence was measured by the Stanford-Binet IQ test, in which an IQ of 132 was the minimum acceptable score. Other standardised intel­lig­ence tests could be used eg the Cattell Culture Fair Intel­ligence Test. To become a Mensan, the only qualification was a score at the 98th percentile. And that the appr­oved intel­l­igence test was run and supervised by a qualified examiner.

Unlike upper-class Ware and Berrill, Londoner Victor Serebriakoff (1912-2000) left school and worked as a clerk for a timber company and then as a manual labourer, but unemployed in the Great Depression. In the standardised Army intelligence test during WW2, he achieved a very high score. After the war he went back to the timber business, invented a mach­ine for grading timber, wrote a book British Saw Milling Practice and became a saw mill manager. He joined Mensa in 1950, and then married another Mensan, Winifred Rouse. Just as Ware and Berrill were called the founders of Mensa today, Serebriakoff became known as the builder of Mensa.

 Victor Serebriakoff, 1960s 
International Secretary of Mensa 

Clearly intended as a non-profit social club for people among the highest intellect in the human population, the founders expected an aristocratic gathering of intelligentsia. Were they dis­appoint­ed to find that many members were mostly from humble origins? I hope not.

Membership benefits included participation in discus­sion groups, social events and annual meetings. Mensa Internat­ional offered 200 Special Interest Groups devoted to a variety of scholarly dis­cip­lines and recreational pursuits. Individual Mensa chapters organis­ed workshops and special events, published newsletters and held annual conferences. Local chapters participate in community activ­ities, often communicated via Mensa newsletters and other forums.

The first members in the USA were expat Britons, or Am­ericans who had learned about Mensa while visiting UK. John Wilcock was a reporter who had attended a meeting in Britain, and on his return home, The Village Voice published his column about Mensa. A medical writer in New York, Peter Sturgeon, read the col­umn and contacted the Mensa Selection Agency. Sturgeon joined up in May 1960 and was authorised in August to formally start a New York branch This was the first recog­nised Mensa division outside the UK and it evolved into American Mensa. Its nat­ion­al office is now in Arling­ton Texas, with divisions in large cities like Chicago and Los Angeles.

The Mensa Education & Research Foundation was established in 1971 to pursue excellence in the study and use of intelligence. With its focus on education, awards and scholarships, this non-profit, phil­anthropic arm of American Mensa and of Mensa Intern­at­ional gave an average of $60,000 in scholarships through a programme across the country. Yearly awards were also given to recognise research, education and publicity regarding intel­ligence and creativity. And it published the Mensa Research Journal. 

Victor Serebriakoff met Peter Sturgeon

The Mensa Genius Quiz Book helps the reader find out if s/he is genius or not.

Mensa International is the umbrella organisation for national groups found in 100 countries. With c134,000 members world-wide, the USA has the most members with Germany second biggest. In Australia, the organisation was started in 1964 by a number of mem­bers of British Mensa who had moved to Australia. Today there are 2400 members. In 1966 in Tor­on­to, a committee was set up to form a Canadian Mensa, in time for the nation’s Centennial. Today Canada has 2000+ members.

Mensa provided very important social and intellectual activities for adults, but what about for young people? Brain Blogger reported a 2004 study measuring 140 American eight-grade students; it concluded that self-discipline was more relevant to academic results than IQ scores. And a British psychometric study measured the correlation between Emotional Intelligence and academic per­formance in 650 students. It concluded that Emotional Intelligence had increm­ental validity over cognitive ability and established personality traits in predicting achieve­ment and behaviour.

Is membership respected and impressive, or is it a certain way to lose friends and alienate people? If a healthy self-image and a good self-discipline achieved better ac­ademic results than a mere high IQ, was having a Mensa-level intelligence the last word in helpfulness?


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