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Kim Peek, mega-savant and the real 'Rain Man'

Born 11 November, 1951, in Salt Lake City, Utah. Died: 19 December, 2009, Salt Lake City, aged 58.

KIM Peek was one of those rare human beings who achieved worldwide fame despite relatively few people knowing his name or even what he looked like.

Born in Salt Lake City, Utah, in 1951, it was clear from the outset that Peek was a touch unusual.

Despite his mother's perfectly normal pregnancy, he had macrocephaly (enlarged cranium), cerebral damage (caused by blisters on the inside of his skull) and, most significantly, agenesis of the corpus callosum – a rare condition in which the nerves that connect the two hemispheres of the brain are either not connected, or are missing. He was also missing secondary connectors.

At nine months old, his parents were advised to place him in an institution where his anticipated mental incapacity could be dealt with. A leading brain surgeon in Utah even offered to perform a lobotomy on Peek when he was six. His parents declined, reasoning that if he were able to teach himself to read by the age of three – checking the dictionary to clarify the meaning of the word "confidential" – and was actively reading newspapers, then a lobotomy was an unnecessary measure.

The downsides of Peek's various conditions were that he had difficulty with motor skills. Unable to walk until the age of four – and when he did, he moved sideways – he could not button a shirt, tie shoe laces, clean his teeth or perform a countless number of ordinary tasks, and his abnormally large and heavy head required physical assistance to hold it up. Peek was also found to be of below average intelligence with an IQ of 73. The upsides of Peek's condition however, were truly incredible.

A savant – usually – has developmental disorders, such as autism, but also has an ability or talent that is in stark contrast to the limitations of that disorder. Peek was referred to by neuroscientists as a "mega-savant". According to his father, he could read and recall information at the age of 16 months, and his preferred method of displaying this was to place the finished publication upside down on a book shelf, to show he had read it.

It took Peek no longer than an hour to read a book, aided by his ability to use each eye independently. He could read the right hand page at the same time as he read the left page, all in approximately ten seconds, irrespective of orientation. He is the only known human being ever to perform this feat.

To complement this already incredible talent, he could also remember almost everything he ever read (about 98 per cent, according to tests) and recall it when prompted. He had read and memorised the Bible by the age of seven and by 18 he had read and memorised the complete works of Shakespeare and every story in every edition of the condensed Reader's Digest. It is believed that his total recall was somewhere in the region of 12,000 books.

His talent for memorising data was not restricted to books however; if given a date, he could recall the day it fell on and what was in the news on that day. He could do this for every day in history, going back 2,000 years. He could also assimilate postcode information, providing accurate details of any postcode in the United States, including the area and even the street name. He also practiced mental arithmetic by reading local phone directories and adding the columns together until he reached numbers in to the trillions.

Peek was unique among savants as he also showed elements of creativity, rather than just being a large repository of information. This extended to music, and he learned to play the piano, although his ability was hampered by his poor motor skills. He could recall music he had heard many years previously and play it while providing commentary on the music itself. He could also identify which instruments played which parts when listening to recorded music.

It was at a national conference for the Association of Retarded Citizens in Arlington, Texas, that Peek was introduced to American scriptwriter Barry Morrow. After spending four hours with Peek, Morrow approached his father Fran and asked if he realised just how remarkable his son was. He wanted Fran to share his son with the world so people could see and appreciate this astonishing man. His father was sceptical, however, and declined to take up Morrow's offer, afraid that his son would be exploited. Until that point, Peek had led a sheltered, almost isolated life: he was 37 and he knew only about 20 people.

Morrow returned, however, having written and sold a script that a film studio had purchased the rights to produce; that film was the multi-Oscar winning Rain Man.

Morrow had written the script with Peek as the inspiration for the title character and now he wanted the lead actor, Dustin Hoffman, to spend time with Peek and two people with autism. Although the film's main character, Raymond Babbit – played by Hoffman – is autistic, Peek was not. It is believed he had the genetic condition FG syndrome.

During the production of the film, Morrow provided Peek with a book on gambling and then attempted to take him in to a casino to test his ability to count cards. Despite having the reasoning skills of a five-year-old, Peek refused to enter the building, believing it to be unethical.

After the film's release, and Peek's mention in Hoffman's Oscar acceptance speech, the glare of the world's media fell on this unknown man from Salt Lake City. Fran Peek decided to take his son on the road to give lectures, educating people on the importance of equality.

It was also a chance for Peek to demonstrate his rare gift, to the delight and astonishment of the audience, and his confidence grew as a result. To fend off accusations that he was taking advantage of his son's extraordinary talent, Fran refused to accept any payment for the shows.

Peek's abilities also attracted the attention of university professors and scientists at Nasa. Most savants are usually recognised as being of "genius ability" in one or two subjects, but the five universities that studied Peek over a number of years formed the opinion that he was a genius in at least 15 subjects. It was also ascertained that the older he got, the more extreme his ability became. Incredibly, his memory improved with age.

Peek had no life outside of reading, and never had a girlfriend or any romantic aspirations. His most treasured possession was the Oscar statuette that Barry Morrow presented him with after he won it for best screenplay in 1989. It accompanied Peek on the road during his lectures, and took pride of place on stage.

Kim Peek died of a heart attack aged 58 and is survived by his father, Fran.

 
 
 

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