1951 - 1992: Age 42
Michael Corke was a music teacher in Chicago. Shortly after he turned 40, he began to have trouble falling asleep. The insomnia grew worse and worse, until he finally could not sleep at all.
Corke had Fatal Familial Insomnia, a rare genetic disorder that doesn't emerge until the person is an adult, somewhere between the ages of 30 and 60. There is no known trigger. If one parent has the gene, each child has a 50% chance of inheriting it. The person simply becomes less and less able to go to sleep. Sufferers may survive up to three years, but they always do die. Michael Corke lasted less than one year: he died after being hospitalized and going without sleep for six months.
It is very rare: about 40 families worldwide have been identified with the gene (most of them in Italy). It was medically identified in the 1970s, but family stories of people gradually becoming totally sleepless and then dying of it go back many generations in at least one of the families studied. Research has linked the mutation to disruption of the activity of prions in the brain, linking the disease with other prion diseases like scrapie, mad cow disease, and Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease.
It is odd that I was unable to find much information about Michael Corke; there are a number of mentions of his case on the web but they are always worded similarly and never include more information that what you see above: no date of birth or death, and no pictures. There is an exhibition on right now in London at the Wellcome Collection an exhibit about sleep that includes video footage of Corke. If any of you have seen it or are willing to go see it (it ends March 2008), please bookmark this page and add a comment about it.
Sources: Wellcome Museum, Fatal Familial Insomnia, The Man Who Never Slept