Leslie Lemke

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Leslie Lemke
Born (1952-01-31) January 31, 1952 (age 64)[1]
Milwaukee, Wisconsin, US
Origin Fond du Lac, Wisconsin, US
Occupation(s) Musician
Instruments piano, singing, numerous others
Years active 1980–present

Leslie Lemke (born January 31, 1952) is a blind American autistic savant who is most notable for his work as a musician.


Leslie Lemke was born prematurely in Milwaukee, Wisconsin in 1952. As a complication of his premature birth, Leslie developed retinal problems, then glaucoma, and his eyes had to be surgically removed in the first months of life. There was also brain damage (and cerebral palsy), and Leslie was extremely ill. His birth mother gave him up for adoption, and the county asked May Lemke, a nurse-governess who they knew and trusted, if she would take Leslie into her receiving home, ill as he was and carrying such a dire prognosis.[2] He was 12 before he first learned to stand, and he was 15 before he learned to walk.

Though Social services had warned May Lemke that Leslie was likely to die, the deeply committed and religious woman flatly asserted that he would not die under her care. To feed him, May sometimes placed cereal on his tongue and stroked his throat to encourage him to swallow. It was a year before Leslie could chew food on his own. It took years of constant care before this changed. During this time, he could somewhat sing and repeat some phrases, but was not conversant and was distant and unemotional, except that he could repeat verbatim and in the exact tone what he had heard, including, "Foster mother has done well, but the time will come when institutional placement will be necessary." To teach him to walk, the approximately four and a half foot May devised a strap system by which Leslie could be supported while he walked with her.

At age 7 Joe and May obtained a piano for Leslie, with May placing her hands over his to play some simple tunes. Soon Leslie was playing these tunes on the piano and used other instruments such as drums, accordion and chord organ. Even though his spasticity was so severe that he could not hold eating utensils, this handicap disappeared when playing the piano. By age 12 Leslie was playing the piano and singing songs he had heard for hours on end, though this apparently he had not heard classical music. However, when he was about 14, his foster parents awoke in the middle of the night to Leslie flawlessly playing Tchaikovsky's Piano Concerto no. 1, which he had heard on television that night. Leslie was soon playing all styles of music, from ragtime to classical.

Leslie can remember and play back a musical piece of any length flawlessly after hearing it once (even at the same time that another pianist was playing for the first time, about 3 second behind it). Among the multitudes of songs he is estimated to know, two songs that he often sings are the Christian hymns "How Great Thou Art" and "Amazing Grace."[3] As time went Leslie became more verbal and more musically accomplished, and increasingly more creative and witty. After playing back a musical piece he heard then he sometimes has launched into a beautifully crafted improvisation of it. When he did not know a requested song, he is known to have composed songs on the spot, singing with a enjoyable baritone voice, all in the absence of any formal musical training and with a measured verbal IQ of only 58 (70% savants are reported to have an IQ below 70). Darold Treffert M.D, who specializes in the epidemiology of autism spectrum disorders and savant syndrome, states that this transition demonstrates that savants are not mere tape recorders or copy machines.

After years of study, he also adds, "I have had the privilege of seeing and hearing Leslie for over thirty years now, and he is a continual reminder of the beauty of music; the power of love; the strength of faith; the tenacity of belief from family, friends, and caregivers; and the depth of human potential—a potential sometimes hidden at first.[4]

His adoptive mother encouraged his talent for the piano. By 1980, Leslie was regularly giving concerts in Fond du Lac, Wisconsin.” His newfound fame gained him invitations to various television shows such as CBC's Man Alive (hosted by Roy Bonisteel), CBS Evening News, 60 Minutes, and That's Incredible!. In 1983, ABC broadcast The Woman Who Willed a Miracle, a drama about Leslie and his adoptive mother. It stars Cloris Leachman as May Lemke. Dustin Hoffman watched the program and was “moved to tears” by Leslie. When the movie script Rainman came to Hollywood, Dustin Hoffman reported, “I thought, I love him. I want to play a savant.” Leslie is also the subject of Fred Small's song, "Leslie is Different" and makes a short appearance in Michael Vey 4.

Leslie toured the United States, Scandinavia, and Japan and gave free concerts on various occasions. He was quite animated when he played.

May Lemke developed Alzheimer's disease and died on November 6, 1993.

See also[edit]

Further information[edit]


  1. ^ Darius, Helene (University of Skövde, School of Humanities and Informatics). "Savant syndrome – Theories and Empirical findings." (PDF) [1]
  2. ^ Treffert, MD, Darold. "Leslie Lemke: An Inspirational Performance". wisconsinmedicalsociety.org. Wisconsin Medical Society. Retrieved 31 December 2015. 
  3. ^ Tammet, Darold A. Treffert ; foreword by Daniel (2011). Islands of genius : the bountiful mind of the autistic, acquired, and sudden savant (1. publ., [repr.]. ed.). London: Jessica Kingsley. ISBN 1849058733. 
  4. ^ Treffert, Darold A. "The Creation and Beyond: The Remarkable Life of Leslie Lemke". wisconsinacademy.org. e Wisconsin Academy of Sciences, Arts & Letters. Retrieved 21 January 2016. 

External links[edit]

  • Leslie Lemke profile from the Wisconsin Medical Society
  • [blogs.scientificamerican.com/guest-blog/whatever-happened-to-leslie-lemke/]