The Odd Way Mensa Began

By Victor Serebriakoff, Hon. Pres.

In 1945 WW2 ended after an atom bomb massacre, Roosevelt and Hitler died, Churchill lost office and the Chinese Communist government was founded. Amid these great events a trivial one. An English University student and an Australian Barrister met on a train and became friends. Mensa was the outcome.
Roland Berrill, at 49, bearded, thick-set, and prosperously dressed had large bulging eyes. He stared confidently at the smaller, younger, Lancelot Ware, a mature student who had returned to his Oxford studies after a wartime interruption. Ware was reading Hansard, the British Parliamentary report. Berrill was intrigued and started a conversation. They exchanged cards. They met a few times, and at one meeting, on 11 March 1946, Ware gave Berrill an intelligence test. Berrill was delighted to be told that he had a very high score.
There is a dispute about who first thought of the idea of a high IQ society. Professor Sir Cyril Burt, the first President of Mensa, in the foreword to my first history of Mensa in '63 seemed to be under the impression that a broadcast of his had sowed the seed of the idea in Berrill's mind. Berrill's brother and several other contemporaries say that Berrill affirmed this view.
Dr. Ware had resigned from Mensa around 1950 and Berrill was dead. That was what we all thought for the first 22 years until a new editor of the Mensa Journal announced that Dr. Ware was the true founder. The article was amended after pressure from early members, and by compromise we accepted that the Roland Berrill and Dr. Ware were joint founders. Dr. Ware rejoined and became Vice President and later was recognised as fons et origo, from his claim that the idea had been his.
The first Secretary Berrill founded the society in the usual sense that he set it going. He wrote the idiosyncratic pamphlets, did the work and supplied the start-up cash. He recruited about 400 members using unsupervised self administered intelligent tests and resigned his office in 1950, very unhappy with members' inadequate responses to his odd letter. He died a few years later.
Mensa activity declined for some years and membership fell. One day at a Mensa dinner, Joe Wilson, the Secretary, said. “Look, this is not a society, we are just a group who enjoy eating out together, let us stop pretending.” Remembering the enormous exhilaration I used to get out of the robust, frank, witty arguments and Mensa discussions, I, like a fool, said., “That would be a pity”, and, in accordance with what is now our oldest tradition, was immediately appointed the new Secretary. We had about 100 members left and about £56 in the kitty. So, in my spare time, I set up a committee, got the testing sorted out, and started the slow climb back uphill. It was a very long hard struggle. Like anybody who is active, I found myself under constant opposition, much of it stertorous and strenuous. But I am a survivor. In the end they made me President to shut me up.
With 103 000 members in over a hundred countries. In my forty-second year of voluntary service for World Mensa and my ninth decade on what Buckminster Fuller, the second Mensa President, called “Planet Earth” I feel like the sorcerer's apprentice and I begin to wonder, “What have I done?” But I am pleased and proud. We bicker a lot but we shall survive. No-one knows the good we do. People have met, made friends, married, written books and papers, formed partnerships in constructive efforts of all kinds, and good commercial companies and groups and projects of immense diversity. Above all, we have enormously enjoyed each others' company at millions of meetings. I feel I have done a little good to make for all muddles, mistakes and wrong decisions I have made in a long hyperactive life.

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Copied by permission from disk supplied by Victor Serebriakoff and lightly edited, 6 June1995.