Etymology of “Savant”
Borrowed from the French noun savant meaning “a learned man,” or “one eminent for learning.” Originates from the Latin “sapere” meaning “be wise.” Other words or phrases with similar origins: savvy, sapient, savoir faire, savor, sage.
A rare and extraordinary condition in which persons suffering from severe mental disabilities including brain injury or disease and autism spectrum disorder, exhibit one or more areas of expertise or brilliance. These exceptional abilities stand in contrast with their overall disability and are described by Dr. Darold Treffer as “islands of genius” in his book by the same name.
As many as one in 10 persons with autistic disorders display some sort of remarkable ability which manifest itself in varying degrees. These amazing skills are always linked to massive memory which could include remembering facts, rapid calculation, artistic and musical ability as well as map making. Typically, only one ability is present.
Approximately half of those with savant syndrome suffer from autism spectrum disorder or have a brain injury. The ones who suffer from autism are also known as “autistic savants.” While some cases become apparent later in life, most cases develop during childhood. Savant syndrome is not considered a mental disorder. Instead, it is a rare condition that affects about one in a million people, with male savants being more common than their female counterparts. It is estimated that fewer than a hundred savants possessing extraordinary skills are alive today.
Scott Barry Kaufman, a humanistic psychologist who has written extensively on autism, described the skills someone with savant syndrome possesses in a recent Scientific American article titled “Where do Savant Skills Come From? as follows:
“The trade-off between memory and meaning is common among savants. The purpose of memory is to simplify experience. We didn’t evolve memory to be precise. Instead, we extract meaning wherever we can so that we can organize the regularities of experience and prepare for similar situations in the future. But without the imposition of meaning, savants can focus on literal recall. Some savants even have hyperlexia, which is the opposite of dyslexia. They are precocious readers but have no comprehension of what they are reading.”
All savants skills vary along a continuum which ranges from what is known as splinter or fraction skills (such as reciting statistics or license plates); to talented savants who have musical, arithmetic or artistic skills that exceed most people; to prodigious savants who possess remarkable skills impressive enough to make it into the history books. Of the latter, there has only been 100 documented cases.
Earliest Known Savants and Jedediah Buxton
In 1783, the first description of savant syndrome appeared in the German psychology journal Gnothi Sauton. In it, Mortiz K.P. MyliusIt described the case of Jedediah Buxton, a human calculator with remarkable memory. Later in 1787, in Britain Doctor J. Landon Down, the discoverer of Down syndrome, described 10 people with savant syndrome, calling them “idiot savants,” a term no longer used due to its pejorative implication.
Born in Elmton, England and lived from 1707 to 1772, Jedediah Buxton was perhaps the first to be referred to as an autistic savant. He was not only a human calculator, but in reality only knew numbers. Although his father was a schoolmaster in Elmton, he was unable to write, and his overall knowledge was extremely limited. He frequently took no notice of objects only to count them. In fact, after hearing a sermon, he knew nothing of its content other than how many words he had counted.
He once measured the land size of Elmton which consisted of some thousand acres or the equivalent of 4 square kilometers, simply by walking over it. He accurately described the area not only in acres but also in roods (a land measurement of a quarter of an acre) and perches (a length equal to 16.5 survey feet). He even went as far as giving the measurement of the area in square inches and later in square hairs’-breath (the width of a human hair). He surmised forty-eight human hairs to each side of the inch.
It was reported that his memory was so great that when figuring out any arithmetic problem he could stop at any given point and pick up the work again at the exact spot months later. All without the use of pencil and paper. He once calculated the product of a farthing (an English monetary unit) doubled 139 times.
The result of this calculation expressed in pounds, extended to thirty-nine figures and later verified through the use of logarithms. Later Buxton multiplied this enormous number by itself and in the interim invented an original terminology for large numbers. He said a ‘tribe’ was the cube of a million and a ‘cramp’, a thousand ‘tribes of tribes’.
His mental capacity was tested in 1754 by the Royal Society of London for Improving Natural Knowledge, whose members acknowledged to their satisfaction his outstanding talent for numbers by presenting him with a handsome gratuity.
During his time in London, he was taken to see the play Richard III, at the Drury Lane theater. During the play his focus was on counting the words uttered by actor David Garrick and to counting the steps of the dancers. At the end he declared that the innumerable sounds produced by the musical instruments had perplexed him beyond measure, pointing to a possible hidden talent that was never explored.
Jedediah Buxton died on March 5, 1772 at the age of 64 of unknown causes.
Gottfried Mind - Raphael of Cats
Born in Bern, Switzerland, Gottfried Mind (September 25, 1768 – November 17, 1814) was an autistic savant known as the Raphael of Cats because of his talent depicting these felines in his paintings. He was one of the first known and recorded autistic savant to be recognized as such.
Due to his weak constitution – which today it’s unclear exactly what that meant – Mind was left alone most of the time. During this time, he developed a liking for painting and would draw on paper. His father on the other hand wanted him to work with wood and would not supply him with the paper he required. Consequently, Mind successfully carved many images on wood which became quite popular in the village where he lived and were purchased by many of the local residents.
At the age of eight, he was admitted into an art academy near Bern established by Johann Heinrich Pestalozzi, the great Swiss pedagogue and educational reformer. During this time his education dealt mainly with art as it was reported that he could barely write his own name and had no skills in arithmetic. Sometime after 1780 he came under the guidance and direction of painter Sigmund Hendenberger who improved his drawing skills and taught him water colors.
During his time at the art academy, Mind’s talent for painting cats became known to Hendenberger by pure chance. It is reported that in a painting by the master depicting a scene with a cat, Mind commented, “That is no cat!”. To which Hendenberger replied whether Mind thought he could do better. Mind offered to try and went into a corner and drew the feline. Hendenberger liked it so much that he made his pupil finish his painting which he copied into his piece.
After Hendenberger’s death, Mind blossomed into the artist we know today. However, his paintings were not only about cats. They included peasant children, town gatherings, people quarrelling or bantering, even sledge parties and participating in sporting events. But cats were his passion. Frequently there were cats sitting near him or literally on top of him while he painted. He was often heard holding loving conversations with the cats that surrounded him. Conversely, humans that came to visit him or were around him were growled or grunted at in an unsocial manner.
In late 1813, Mind began to experience chest discomfort which prevented him from exerting himself. On November 17, 1814 he died of what could be construed as heart problems. He was 46.
The Human Calculator
In 1789 Benjamin Rush, considered the father of American psychiatry, provided a report of Thomas Fuller, nicknamed “lightning calculator.” Fuller, an African slave born in 1710 somewhere between present day Liberia and Benin, was shipped to America in 1724. While unable to comprehend much of what was spoken to him or encountered, Fuller had an uncanny ability to do immense arithmetic calculations instantaneously.
When Fuller was approximately 70 years of age, William Hartshorne, (famous printer in Brooklyn) and Samuel Coates, (prominent Quaker merchant and Treasurer of the Library Company of Philadelphia) met with him to test his abilities.
They asked him two questions: How many seconds are there in a year and a half? And, how many seconds a man of 70 years has lived? For the first question it took Fuller 2 minutes. He answered 47,304,00, which is correct. For the second question, it took him a little less: a minute and a half. His answer was 2,210,500,800. One of the men who was working on the problem on paper exclaimed that his answer was too high, to which Fuller replied, “Top, massa, you forget de leap year.” Naturally, when the 17 leap years were added, the sum was proven correct.
On his obituary, in the Boston newspaper Columbian Centinel on December 29 1790, his age was listed as eighty and described Fuller as "very black" and a prodigy. Thomas Fuller cause of death is unknown.
Blind Tom's Music
In the late 1800s to early 1900s the case of musical prodigy Thomas “Blind Tom” Wiggins (May 25, 1849 – June 14, 1908) became well known. An African American ex-slave born on the Wiley Edward Jones Plantation in Harris County, Georgia, Wiggins was blind at birth. In 1850 he was sold, along with his enslaved parents to a Columbus, Georgia, lawyer, General James Neil Bethune. At this time his name was changed to Tom Wiggins Bethune.
Because Tom was blind, he would never have been able to perform the work demanded of slaves after growing up. Many slave owners of the time might have killed him for not offering any economic value, however, Tom was fortunate in that he was left to play freely in the Bethune plantation.
Before turning four years of age, it is reported that Tom heard the Bethune daughters play the family piano. By the time he turned four he had acquired some degree of proficiency playing the instrument. By age five Tom had composed his first tune, The Rain Storm, after a torrential downpour that hit one of the tin roofs at the plantation.
General Bethune recognizing his extraordinary skills, allowed Tom to live in a room attached to the family house and equipped it with a piano. In 1908, shortly after his death the Atlanta Constitution featured an article in which Otto Spahr, a neighbor during Tom’s childhood said: "Tom seemed to have but two motives in life: the gratification of his appetite and his passion for music. I don't think I exaggerate when I state that he made the piano go for twelve hours out of twenty-four."
When Blind Tom turned eight years of age, General Bethune hired him out to concert promoter Perry Oliver, who took him on tours throughout the country. During this time, he would perform as often as four times a day, earning Oliver and Bethune close to $100,000 per year; a sum equal to $2,500,000 in today’s purchasing power.
In his lifetime, Blind Tom learned 7,000 pieces of music, including hymns, popular songs, waltzes and classical pieces. In 1860, he became the first African-American to perform at the White House when he played for President James Buchanan. Over the decades, many of his performances were attended by Mark Twain who wrote extensively about his talents. In one occasion after attending three of Tom’s performances in a row, he wrote:
"He lorded it over the emotions of his audience like an autocrat. He swept them like a storm, with his battle-pieces; he lulled them to rest again with melodies as tender as those we hear in dreams; he gladdened them with others that rippled through the charmed air as happily and cheerily as the riot the linnets make in California woods; and now and then he threw in queer imitations of the tuning of discordant harps and fiddles, and the groaning and wheezing of bag-pipes, that sent the rapt silence into tempests of laughter. And every time the audience applauded when a piece was finished, this happy innocent joined in and clapped his hands, too, and with vigorous emphasis."
During his life time, Blind Tom wrote the following pieces:
- Rain Storm (1854)
- The Oliver Gallop (1860)
- The Battle of Manassas (1862)
- March Timpani (1880)
- Reve Charmant (1881)
- Wellenklange: Voices of the Waves (1882)
- Sewing Song (1889)
- Water in the Moonlight (1892)
Although Blind Tom lived and died before autism was recognized as a cognitive disability, he is now regarded as an autistic savant.
The Real Rain Man – Kim Peek
Played by Dustin Huffman in the movie Rain Man, Raymond Babbitt was a character inspired by Kim Peek, one of the most exceptional savants of the last hundred years. Until this time and even today, Peek was not someone with great name recognition. He was born in Salt Lake City, Utah on November 11, 1951 and died at the age of 58 in Murray, Utah on December 9, 2009.
He was known as a “megasavant” who possessed an exceptional memory and the ability to read both pages of an open book at once. He would accomplish this last feat by having his left eye read the left page and his right eye the right one. By doing this he could absorb both pages at once effectively allowing him to read what a normal person would take ten minutes to peruse, in less than ten seconds. His incredible photographic memory would allow him to retain at least 98% of everything he ever learned.
Born with severe brain damage, his childhood doctor advised his parents Fran Peek and Jeanne Buchi Peek to put him in an institution and forget about him. According to the doctor, Kim’s disability would not allow him to walk or even learn. In spite of this, Kim’s father disregarded the doctor’s advice. However, throughout his life, Kim struggled with ordinary motor skills having difficulty walking and doing simple tasks like buttoning his shirt. He was reported to have had an IQ of 87.
Originally thought to have suffered from autism spectrum disorder, a 2008 study concluded that Peek probably had FG syndrome, a rare X chromosome-linked genetic condition that causes abnormalities such as hypotonia (low muscle tone) and macrocephaly (abnormally large head).
He was born with damage to the cerebellum and agenesis of the corpus callosum, in which the nerves that connect the left and right hemisphere of the brain are missing. Also missing in Peek were secondary connectors such as the anterior commissure. All of this causing his neurons to make unusual connections therefore allowing his brain to have remarkably high memory capacity.
In a Scientific American article titled ‘Inside the Mind of a Savant’ by experts on savants Darold A. Treffert and Daniel D. Christensen, explained the potential cause of Kim’s brain structure and ability by saying:
"Perhaps the resulting structures allow the two hemispheres to function, in certain respects, as one giant hemisphere, putting normally separate functions under the same roof, as it were. If so, then Peek may owe some of his talents to this particular abnormality."
According to Peek’s father, he was able to memorize facts from the age of 16 months. His extraordinary speed reading ability allowed him to power through a book in about one hour, remembering almost everything he read. Among his incredible abilities and accomplishments were:
He was reported to have read at least 12,000 books which he could accurately recall; He was able to recite all of Shakespeare’s plays; He could figure out which day of the week anyone’s birthday was on; He could provide instant driving directions between any two cities in the world, just like Google Maps do today; He could count cards, just like he was portrait in the Rain Man movie.
During his lifetime Peek appeared in dozens of television interviews and documentaries which included: Ripley’s Believe It or Not, Richard Quest in CNN, a Discovery Channel documentary, a Discovery Health Channel documentary and many more.
On December 19, 2009 Peek died of a heart attack at his home at the age of 59. His father, Fran, died on April 5, 2014, at age 88.
In less than an hour savant Alonzo Clemons can create a small clay sculpture of any animal he glimpses at for just a few seconds. He can also create a realistic and anatomically accurate sculpture of almost any animal after quickly looking at its picture or photograph.
As a toddler he suffered a brain injury that left him with a developmental disability and an IQ in the 40 – 50 range. Although he cannot read, write, work with numbers, tie his shoes or eat on his own, Alonzo has the exceptional ability to capture in his mind the shapes and forms he sees. His skilled hands can not only transform a block of clay into an animal figure with extreme accuracy, but also one full of life, spirit and artistic value.
Born in 1958 in Boulder, Colorado, Alonzo is also well-known for a life-size rendering of a horse he created and placed for exhibit at Arts!Lafayette in Lafayette, Colorado in June of 2019. His sculpting ability was first noticed when he attended school and would sit in the back of the classroom molding small clay animals. When his teachers took the clay from him, hoping he would concentrate on other needed skills, he found other materials in his environment he could use to continue sculpting.
In 1986 he had a premiere exhibit in Aspen, Colorado where he sold many of his creations for as much as $45,000. Although known in some artistic circles, Alonzo worked in relative obscurity until the movie Rain Man featuring Dustin Hoffman in the role inspired by savant Kim Peek came out in 1988. This media exposure allowed Alonzo to gain worldwide recognition and the opportunity to reach his dreams.
Today, Clemons lives in his own home with some assistance. He works at part time jobs in the community in addition to his sculpting work. He demonstrates his sculpting talents to children at area schools and competes in power lifting at the Special Olympics. Of course, he often visits the Denver Zoo, the National Western Stock Show as well as many local farms and ranches.
Stephen Wiltshire Artist
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Stephen Wiltshire – the Human Camera
Born in London on April 24, 1974 of Caribbean parents, Stephen Wiltshire is an architectural artist and autistic savant known for his ability to draw cityscapes and buildings from memory after seeing them only once. His outstanding work has gained worldwide popularity and in 2006 he was made a Member of the Order of the British Empire (MBE) for services to art. He studied Fine Art at City & Guilds Art College.
As a child Stephen was mute and was unable to relate to other people, eventually being diagnosed as autistic at the age of three. He lived within his own mind for many years even after attending Queensmill School in London where it was apparent he communicated through the language of drawing. He first drew animals, then moved on to London buses and finally buildings.
His instructors at Queensmill School tried to encourage him to speak by taking away his art supplies in the hopes he would be forced to ask for them. Stephen made grunting sounds but eventually uttered the word “paper.” It was not until the age of nine when he was able to speak fully.
By age seven Wiltshire had entered several art competitions and the Media began to notice his drawing ability. He sold his first work before turning eight. In 1982, after he turned eight, he received his first commission from Margarete Thatcher, the British Prime Minister, to draw Salisbury Cathedral.
In 1987, at the age of 13, Stephen met Margaret Hewson, a literary agent who helped him publish his first book named Drawings (1987). Hewson also arranged his first trip abroad to New York City, where he sketched legendary skyscrapers such as the Empire State Building and the Chrysler Building. Two years later Wiltshire published his second book Cities (1989).
Today, his drawings are lifelike representations of remarkable accuracy and detail. While some of his drawings are normal size, some are wide angle depictions measuring up to 30 feet in width. Wiltshire has drawn cities, buildings, street scenes, train stations, skylines and fictional depictions of famous buildings throughout the world.
The collection of cities he has drawn include London, New York, Sydney, Mexico City, Vancouver, Tokyo and many others. Some of his accomplishments include drawing four square miles of London after a single helicopter ride above the city; a nineteen-foot-long drawing of 305 square miles of New York City also based on a short helicopter ride; spending a week drawing a 10-meter-long depiction of Hong Kong’s Victoria Harbor and the surrounding urban area. He has also drawn Madrid, Dubai, Jerusalem and Frankfurt.
Born on January 31, 1979, Daniel Tammet is a high-functioning autistic savant who can perform mind-boggling mathematical calculations at astonishing speeds. However, where most autistic savants exhibit expertise in one area of knowledge at the expense of all other cognitive skills, Tammet excels in a variety of abilities. Among his accomplishments are:
- He speaks nine languages and claims to be able to learn a new language in just two weeks.
- Accomplished best-selling writer who has written four non-fiction books, a book of poetry, a novel, six essays, translated a book of poems from French to English.
- Co-wrote a song.
- Collaborated in the making of a short film.
- Created a new language (constructed language) he named Mänti.
- In 2002 he launched the online language learning company Optimnem.
- Was named a member of the UK's 'National Grid for Learning' in 2006.
- He took up a volunteer job teaching in Kaunas, Lithuania for one year in 1998.
- On March 14, 2004, known as Pi Day, he broke the European record for reciting 22,514 decimal places in Pi from memory. It took him 5 hours and 9 minutes to accomplish this feat.
- Learned Icelandic, one of the most difficult languages in the world, in one week.
Tammet was the subject of the 2005 award-winning documentary film ‘Brainman’ which has been shown in over 40 countries. He was also the subject of the 2005 documentary film titled Extraordinary People: The Boy with the Incredible Brain. He has made appearances on ‘ABC News’, ’60 minutes’, ‘Good Morning America’, ‘Late Show with David Letterman’ and has been featured in the front page of more than a dozen world renown news publications such as ‘New York Times’, ‘International Herald Tribune’, ‘Der Spiegel’ and ‘Le Monde’.
He was born in London, England, the eldest of nine children. He suffered from epileptic seizures as a young child, which ended following medical treatment. His birth name was Daniel Paul Corney, but he legally changed it, exclaiming that it didn’t fit the way he saw himself. Instead, he took the Estonian surname Tammet which is related to “oak tree.” He was diagnosed with Asperger syndrome by Simon Baron-Cohen of the University of Cambridge Autism Research Center at the age of twenty-five.
Additionally, Tammet suffers from a neurological condition known as synesthesia, in which the stimulation of one sense (e.g., taste, smell or sound) produces experiences in a totally different sense (e.g., sight or touch). According to researchers, approximately one in 27 people experience this condition.
An example of this condition is given by Jaime Smith a synesthetic sommelier (waiter in charge of wine) who says that he experiences a white wine like Nosiola as having a "beautiful aquamarine, flowy, kind of wavy color to it." (Seaberg, Maureen, “The Synesthetic Sommelier” – Psychology Today - Feb 07, 2013)
In one of the studies conducted by Baron-Cohen, it was determined that Tammet’s remarkable savant memory is most likely attributed to the combination of Asperger syndrome and synesthesia.
In an article by Nick Watt, Eric M. Strauss and Astrid Rodrigues for ABCnews.go it is reported that Tammet claims to have been born with the ability to experience numbers in an exceptionally vivid way. They quote him as saying:
"The numbers are moving in my mind," he says. "Sometimes they're fast, sometimes they're slow. Sometimes they're dark. Sometimes they're bright. That emotion, that motion, that texture will be highly memorable for me."
Today, Tammet lives in Paris, France with his husband Jerome Tabet, a photographer he met while on tour to promote his autobiography.
Autistic savant Daniel Tammet on ‘the language of numbers’.
Resources and Further Reading
- Savant Syndrome
- Autism Spectrum Disorder
- Synesthetic Sommelier
- Daniel Tammet
- Kim Peek
- Alonzo Clemens
- Gottfried Mind
- Jedidiah Buxton
- Stephen Wiltshire
- Dr. John L. Down
- Thomas Fuller
- Blind Tom
JC Scull (author) from Gainesville, Florida on May 12, 2020:
Thank you Marcy.
Marcy Bialeschki from Cerro Gordo, IL on May 12, 2020:
These bios are all so fascinating. I had heard of the Human Calculator before but did not know the real story, and I had forgotten about the actual Rain Man. Such meticulous research!! Well done!! I will probably read them again and again.
JC Scull (author) from Gainesville, Florida on April 04, 2020:
Hello Ann, It is an interesting phenomenon indeed. Thank you for commenting.
Ann Carr from SW England on April 04, 2020:
Most interesting. I think some of the reason is that deficiencies in one physical area can produce accentuated ability in another, a little like a blind person being able to rely more on sound or touch, though much stronger.
You've given us many examples. I suppose some of these people suffered from others' reactions to their 'talents'.
JC Scull (author) from Gainesville, Florida on March 24, 2020:
Thank you Liz. Good to hear from you. Stay safe and healthy.
Liz Westwood from UK on March 24, 2020:
You have highlighted a very gifted group of people in this article.
JC Scull (author) from Gainesville, Florida on March 23, 2020:
Thank you Pamela. Good to hear from you.
Pamela Oglesby from Sunny Florida on March 23, 2020:
These men are absolutely remarkable. I have never heard of any of these savants before and this was so interesting. This is a fascinating well-written article.
JC Scull (author) from Gainesville, Florida on March 23, 2020:
Thank you for your very nice comment.
MG Singh emge from Singapore on March 23, 2020:
This was a fascinating and captivating write-up. I hadn't heard of most of these great characters so it added to my knowledge.
JC Scull (author) from Gainesville, Florida on March 23, 2020:
Thank you Lorna. Always a pleasure to hear from you. Stay safe as well.
Lorna Lamon on March 23, 2020:
Such an interesting and fascinating article JC and Stephen Wiltshire is particularly inspiring. Amazing and wonderful people - an enjoyable and educational read. Stay safe JC.
JC Scull (author) from Gainesville, Florida on March 22, 2020:
Thank you John. I am glad you enjoyed it.
John Hansen from Queensland Australia on March 22, 2020:
This was an amazing read, JC. I have heard of a couple of these before Kim Peek and Stephen Wiltshire, but the others were new to me. Thank you for this.
JC Scull (author) from Gainesville, Florida on March 22, 2020:
Thank you Jason. I agree. It is an interesting subject.
Jason Nicolosi from AZ on March 22, 2020:
Very cool and interesting article JC.
Savants are remarkable. Their talents and the way they think is fascinating. It's crazy how a lot of savants have some kind of issue, like Autism, or blindness. It's amazing how they are blessed with such incredible gifts. Great Job.