Kim Peek may have been the world's most famous savant. Dustin Hoffman portrayed a character based on Peek in the 1988 film Rain Man, which triggered hundreds of news stories and documentaries about the man with "islands of remarkable abilities in a sea of disabilities," as scientists described him.
According to his father, Peek suffered a heart attack Saturday at his home in Murray, Utah. He was 58.
Kim Peek couldn't operate a light switch or button his shirt. But his memory was so vast and deep and exact, he was compared to a computer. In fact, some called him "Kim-puter."
"He had a bottomless memory," recalls Daniel Christensen, a clinical professor of psychiatry at the University of Utah's Neuropsychiatric Institute. During the past 20 years, Christensen examined, tested and traveled with Peek.
Peek had the ability to recall facts and patterns about history, mathematics, music and geography but, adds Christensen, "the ability to take those things ... and use them, to reason with them, make sense of them, to know the implications, to make judgments based on them, that's a very different thing. And that's sort of where his mental abilities ended."
Christensen discovered a rare birth defect, known as agenesis of the corpus callosum, during a brain scan in the 1980s. Peek was missing the thick bundle of millions of nerve fibers that connects the left and right hemispheres of the brain. But a precise explanation for Peek's mix of abilities and disabilities remained elusive.
"No one knows to this day why, exactly why, people can do things like Kim could do," Christensen says.
After Rain Man, Peek traveled the world as "the real Rain Man," amazing audiences and visitors with his ability to recall dates and facts deep into history. He memorized every road, place and distance on maps. Sing a tune, and he'd name the composer, the composer's birth date and the circumstances surrounding the composition of the piece. He reportedly memorized almost every word in thousands of books.
In 1984, Peek met screenwriter Barry Morrow, who was so inspired by the savant he wrote Rain Man, a film about a man with similar characteristics. The film won four Academy Awards, including a Best Actor Oscar for Dustin Hoffman, who played the character based on Peek. Peek later traveled with an Oscar statuette.
Christensen considers Peek unique among savants. Most, he says, have had a single remarkable skill, such as music or mathematics or mechanics.
"In comparison, Kim could do almost anything," Christensen says.
In a German documentary, Peek is shown with a group of American students who test his memory. Their teacher tells him she was born on Aug. 5, 1947.
"It was a Tuesday," Peek responds. "And this year, it's a Friday. And you retire in 2012 on a Sunday." He's then asked the name of the film winning the Academy Award for Best Picture when the teacher was 15. "Lawrence of Arabia," Kim says, without hesitation. "That's right!" the teacher replies.
Peek and his father, Fran, used Kim's notoriety to campaign for the disabled. They produced a book called The Life and Message of the Real Rain Man.
Peek's memory improved over time, prompting NASA to make him the subject of MRI research. And his memory was sharp to the end. It was his heart that gave out Saturday.
"I think it'll be a long time before we have another Kim," Christensen says. "I don't think there has been anyone like Kim in recorded history."