It’s an interesting thing, watching a blind man who cannot even button up his own shirt, nor tie his shoes, play the piano as well as anyone in the world. Or watch a non-verbal six-year-old boy listen to a piece of music, much like Mozart purportedly did, and play it back, completely from memory mere seconds later. How can people with such overarching disabilities possess such extraordinary skills in certain fields? It’s as if the brain took all of the resources used for daily life, and put them in a special place solely utilized for these people’s special talents.
What casual observers watching documentaries on these folks on CNN, BBC, or NBC would call fascinating, but strange, the medical community would call a ‘prodigious savant’. A prodigious savant is extremely rare; a prodigious savant is a person whose skill level would have most in the medical community consider them to be an extremely exceptional talent in their given field of expertise. As of today, there have been less than 100 prodigious savants studied and written about in over a century of discourse and observation on the subject. Fewer than fifty prodigious savants are believed to be alive today, and nearly half of them are musical savants.
While prodigious savants are certainly the most celebrated and talked about, as well as the most intriguing, for both the medical community and the public at large, there are thousands of people the medical community considers savants alive today. The skills of a savant can be described as a part of a spectrum that may include members of the autistic community, who, despite a disability, posses a high capacity for other facets of cognition that 90% who share their condition do not. Therefore, the spectrum with which we classify one as a savant can be confusing, and quite broad, though it is now generally accepted that those prodigious savants have a condition known as savant syndrome. This list aims to include primarily those prodigious savants, living or dead, who either were born into their condition and subsequent skill, or inherited both during some sort of cerebral trauma.
5. Henriett Seth F.
Born Fajcsák Henrietta in Hungary, the 33-year-old savant is notable in part because she is female, and savant syndrome in females only accounts for roughly %16 of all those diagnosed. Furthermore, Henriett is a wildly successful poet, author and artist with many of her works, most notably “Closed into Myself with Autism” being published in her native Hungary to critical acclaim. Because of her prolific career before the age of 30 when a multitude of diseases associated with her condition, including heart disease and cancer, forced her to stop creating, Henriett has been called ‘Rain Girl’ (in homage to Dustin Hoffman’s title character in the film Rain Man). She has also helped contribute to the coining of the term “savant syndrome” to better describe those handicapped people with extraordinary talents.
4. Derek Paravicini
A personal favorite of the author, Derek Paravicini is a blind, autistic savant who also happens to be a phenomenal piano player with absolute pitch who can play any song immediately upon hearing it. Not only that, he can play any song in any different musical style after hearing it as well. At his concerts, audiences routinely call out a song, a style, or both, and Derek will start playing the audience’s requests on queue. Mozart as a boogie? No problem. Lynynrd Skynyrd in classical form? Derek is up to he task. What Derek cannot do with his hands and fingers, given his remarkable talent on the piano, is button up his own shirt without extreme difficulty, or coordinate them to do other routine, mundane tasks. For a further glimpse into Derek and his talent and life, check out the feature 60 Minutes produced on him.
3. Flo and Kay Lyman
Flo and Kay Lyman are both shocking, and deserving to be on this list for two major reasons beyond their savant qualities; they are both females, and they are twins. As mentioned before, females make up only roughly 16% of the savant population, so to have two in the same family, never mind twins, is practically unheard of. Beyond the circumstances that make Flo and Kay Lyman so unique is their ability to count the calendar, meaning they can recall any date on the calendar and tell you what day it was. The incredible memory of Flo and Kay Lyman often results in the pair being dubbed the “Rain Man Twins”. For instance, October 2, 2013? The twins would be able to immediately tell you it was a Wednesday. Beyond reminding you of the day of the week, they can also tell you what they’ve done on any given day, what they wore, ate and what the weather was like. The twins also posses a nearly unsurpassed knowledge of pop music from the 1960s and 1970s and can recall everything Dick Clark ever wore on one of his television shows.
2. Tom Wiggins
Tom Wiggins was an African American-born in Georgia in 1850. Sold into slavery at birth to General James Neil Bethune, Tom was expected to live a life of hard labour on a plantation until it was discovered that he was blind. Furthermore, as he aged Tom also showed signs of learning disabilities, particularly an inability to verbalise his own thoughts. With those disabilities Tom had been born with, however, was an immense talent for reproducing sound, which, at a young age, found its outlet on the piano.
By the age of five Tom could play two separate songs on two separate pianos at the same time, both from memory after only hearing them once. Though there are conflicting reports as to when Tom Wiggins gave his first public performance, by the time he was eight years old his owner, General Bethune had hired Tom Wiggins, known now as “Blind Tom” to perform across the country, to vast success. In fact, Blind Tom was one of the highest grossing piano players of his era. With his ability to recreate almost any sound, not just on the piano, but also from people’s voices and sounds in nature, Blind Tom’s recitals were always a hit, grossing up to $100,000 annually. Beyond his financial success, Tom Wiggins was also the first African American to ever perform at the White House and had one Mark Twain as a fan.
Ultimately, given the timing of Tom Wiggins’ emergence into the world and his lot in life, the poor man, no matter how talented, was merely a means to an end for whoever owned him, and after the American Civil War, whoever kept him as their ward. Blind Tom never reaped any benefit of the success he brought to those who controlled him, nor was his mental status ever explored, he merely was a sideshow that made a lot of money. Upon his death in 1908, it was said that all Tom Wiggins cared about was playing piano, and for his entire life that is all he really did; hopefully that’s the only awareness he had of his situation, the joy he found in playing the piano and not the exploitation he suffered at the hands of others.
1. Kim Peek
Kim Peek could not walk until he was four years old, it was suggested to his parents that they consider having him lobotomised to ‘cure’ his condition by age six, and by age seven he was kicked out of school. Around that time teachers and tutors were shocked to observe Peek reading one page of a book with one eye while simultaneously reading the opposite page with his other eye, memorizing the contents of these books at astonishing speed.
Born with something known as FG Syndrome, Kim Peek was known as a “megasavant”. His memory was essentially second to no one on the planet; he had apparently memorized the entire contents of over 12,000 books, had the ability to count the calendar (like Flo and Kay Lyman) and remembered complex numerical codes as well. His story was so unique and intriguing that he became the basis for Dustin Hoffman’s character in Rain Man after him. The success of the film brought newfound recognition to Kim Peek and Savant Syndrome, as requests for interviews and public appearances for Peek to speak to a crowd about his life began to help make the public more aware of his incredible talents, as well as his disabilities. Accompanied by his father to help him deal with the daily tasks he couldn’t manage, long after Rain Man, and until his death at age 58 in 2009, Kim Peek educated the world on what a savant was, and how markedly different life is for one.