Oliver Wolf Sacks, CBE, FRCP (9 July 1933 – 30 August 2015) was a British neurologist, naturalist, historian of science, and author. Born in Britain, and mostly educated there, he spent his career in the United States. He believed that the brain is the "most incredible thing in the universe." He became widely known for writing best-selling case histories about both his patients' and his own disorders and unusual experiences, with some of his books adapted for plays by major playwrights, feature films, animated short films, opera, dance, fine art, and musical works in the classical genre.
After Sacks received his medical degree from The Queen's College, Oxford in 1960, he interned at Middlesex Hospital (part of University College, London) before moving to the U.S. He then interned at Mount Zion Hospital in San Francisco and completed his residency in neurology and neuropathology at the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA). He relocated to New York in 1965, where he first worked under a paid fellowship in neurochemistry and neuropathology at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine. Upon realising that the neuro-research career he envisioned for himself would be a poor fit, in 1966 he began serving as neurologist at Beth Abraham Hospital's chronic-care facility in the Bronx. While there, he worked with a group of survivors of the 1920s sleeping sickness encephalitis lethargica, who had been unable to move on their own for decades. His treatment of those patients became the basis of his book Awakenings. In the period from 1966 to 1991 he was a neurological consultant to various New York City-area nursing homes (especially those operated by Little Sisters of the Poor), hospitals, and at the Bronx Psychiatric Center.
Sacks was the author of numerous best-selling books, mostly collections of case studies of people, including himself, with neurological disorders. He also published hundreds of articles (both peer-reviewed scientific articles as well as articles for a general audience), not only articles about neurological disorders, but also insightful book reviews and articles about the history of science, natural history, and nature. His writings have been featured in a wide range of media; the New York Times called him a "poet laureate of contemporary medicine", and "one of the great clinical writers of the 20th century". His books include a wealth of narrative detail about his experiences with his patients and his own experiences, and how each coped with their condition, often illuminating how the normal brain deals with perception, memory and individuality. In addition to the information content, the beauty of his writing style is especially treasured by many of his readers.
Awakenings (1973) was adapted into an Academy Award-nominated film in 1990, starring Robin Williams and Robert De Niro. He and his book Musicophilia: Tales of Music and the Brain were the subject of "Musical Minds", an episode of the PBS series Nova. Sacks was awarded a CBE for services to medicine in the 2008 Birthday Honours.
Sacks was born in Cricklewood, London, England, the youngest of four children born to Jewish parents: Samuel Sacks, a Lithuanian Jewish physician (died June 1990), and Muriel Elsie Landau, one of the first female surgeons in England (died 1972), who was one of 18 siblings. Sacks had an extremely large extended family of eminent scientists, physicians and other notable individuals, including the director and writer Jonathan Lynn and first cousins, the Israeli statesman Abba Eban and the Nobel Laureate Robert Aumann.
In December 1939 when Sacks was six years old, he and his older brother Michael were evacuated from London to escape the Blitz, and sent to a boarding school in the Midlands where he remained until 1943. Unknown to his family, at the school, he and his brother Michael "... subsisted on meager rations of turnips and beetroot and suffered cruel punishments at the hands of a sadistic headmaster". This is detailed in his first autobiography, Uncle Tungsten: Memories of a Chemical Boyhood. Beginning at his return home at the age of 10 from the cruel and devastating boarding school experience, under his Uncle Dave's tutelage he became an intensely focused amateur chemist, as recalled in Uncle Tungsten. Later, he attended St Paul's School in London, where he developed critically important lifelong friendships with Jonathan Miller and Eric Korn. During adolescence he shared an intense interest in biology with these friends, and later came to share his parents' enthusiasm for medicine. He entered The Queen's College, Oxford in 1951, obtaining a BA degree in physiology and biology in 1956.
Although not required, Sacks chose to stay on for an additional year to undertake research, after he had taken a course by Hugh Macdonald Sinclair. Sacks recalls, "I had been seduced by a series of vivid lectures on the history of medicine" and nutrition, given by Sinclair. Sacks adds, "And now, in Sinclair's lectures, it was the history of physiology, the ideas and personalities of physiologists, which came to life." Sacks then became involved with the school's Laboratory of Human Nutrition under Sinclair. Sacks focused his research on Jamaica ginger, a toxic and commonly abused drug known to cause irreversible nerve damage. After devoting months to research, he was disappointed by the lack of help and guidance he received from Sinclair. Sacks wrote up an account of his research findings but stopped working on the subject. As a result he became depressed: "I felt myself sinking into a state of quiet but in some ways agitated despair." His tutor at Queen's and his parents, seeing his lowered emotional state, suggested he extricate himself from academic studies for a period. His parents then suggested he spend the summer of 1955 living on Israeli kibbutzEin HaShofet, where the physical labour would help him.
Sacks would later describe his experience on the kibbutz as an "anodyne to the lonely, torturing months in Sinclair's lab". He said he lost 60 pounds (27 kg) from his previously overweight body, as a result of the healthy, hard physical labour he performed there. He spent time traveling around the country, with time scuba diving at the Red Sea port city of Eilat, and began to reconsider his future: "I wondered again, as I had wondered when I first went to Oxford, whether I really wanted to become a doctor. I had become very interested in neurophysiology, but I also loved marine biology; . . . But I was 'cured' now; it was time to return to medicine, to start clinical work, seeing patients in London."
"My pre-med studies in anatomy and physiology at Oxford had not prepared me in the least for real medicine. Seeing patients, listening to them, trying to enter (or at least imagine) their experiences and predicaments, feeling concerned for them, taking responsibility for them, was quite new to me ... It was not just a question of diagnosis and treatment; much graver questions could present themselves—questions about the quality of life and whether life was even worth living in some circumstances."
Sacks began medical school at Oxford University in 1956 and for the next two and half years, he took courses in medicine, surgery, orthopaedics, paediatrics, neurology, psychiatry, dermatology, infectious diseases, obstetrics, and various other disciplines. During his years as a student, he helped home-deliver a number of babies. He received an MA degree and BM BCh degree in 1958. He qualified for his internship that December, which would begin at Middlesex Hospital the following month. "My eldest brother, Marcus, had trained at the Middlesex," he said, "and now I was following his footsteps."
Before beginning his internship, he said he first wanted some actual hospital experience to gain more confidence and he took a job at a hospital in St Albans, where his mother had worked as an emergency surgeon during the war. He then did his six-month internship at Middlesex Hospital's medical unit, followed by another six months in its neurological unit. He completed his internship in June 1960, but was uncertain about his future.
Sacks left Britain and flew to Montreal, Canada on 9 July 1960, his 27th birthday. He visited the Montreal Neurological Institute and the Royal Canadian Air Force (RCAF), telling them that he wanted to be a pilot. After some interviews and checking his background, they told him he would be best in medical research. Dr. Taylor, the head medical officer, told him, "You are clearly talented and we would love to have you, but I am not sure about your motives for joining." He was told to travel for a few months and reconsider. He used the next three months to travel across Canada and deep into the Canadian Rockies, which he described in his personal journal, later published as Canada: Pause, 1960.
He then made his way to the United States, completing a residency in Neurology at Mt. Zion Hospital in San Francisco, and fellowships in Neurology and Psychiatry at UCLA. While there, Sacks became a lifelong close friend of poet Thom Gunn, saying he loved his wild imagination, his strict control, and perfect poetic form. During much of his time at UCLA, he lived in a rented house in Topanga Canyon and experimented with various recreational drugs. He described some of his experiences in a 2012 New Yorker article, and in his book Hallucinations. During his early career in California and New York City he indulged in:
"staggering bouts of pharmacological experimentation, underwent a fierce regimen of bodybuilding at Muscle Beach (for a time he held a California record, after he performed a full squat with 600 pounds across his shoulders), and racked up more than 100,000 leather-clad miles on his motorcycle. And then one day he gave it all up—the drugs, the sex, the motorcycles, the bodybuilding."
He wrote that after moving to New York City, an amphetamine-facilitated epiphany that came as he read a book by the 19th century migraine physician Edward Liveing inspired him to chronicle his observations on neurological diseases and oddities; to become the "Liveing of our Time".
Sacks served as an instructor and later clinical professor of neurology at Yeshiva University's Albert Einstein College of Medicine from 1966 to 2007, and also held an appointment at the New York University School of Medicine from 1992 to 2007. In July 2007, he joined the faculty of Columbia University Medical Center as a professor of neurology and psychiatry. At the same time, he was appointed Columbia University's first "Columbia University Artist" at the university's Morningside Heights campus, recognising the role of his work in bridging the arts and sciences. He was also a visiting professor at the University of Warwick in the UK. He returned to New York University School of Medicine in 2012, serving as a professor of neurology and consulting neurologist in the school's epilepsy centre.
Sacks's work at Beth Abraham Hospital helped provide the foundation on which the Institute for Music and Neurologic Function (IMNF) is built; Sacks was an honorary medical advisor. The Institute honoured Sacks in 2000 with its first Music Has Power Award. The IMNF again bestowed a Music Has Power Award on him in 2006 to commemorate "his 40 years at Beth Abraham and honour his outstanding contributions in support of music therapy and the effect of music on the human brain and mind".
Sacks maintained a busy hospital-based practice in New York City. He accepted a very limited number of private patients, in spite of being in great demand for such consultations. He served on the boards of the Neurosciences Institute and the New York Botanical Garden where he had been an extremely frequent visitor since he first moved to New York City, as well as a very active member of The Fern Society, which meets there.
In 1967, Sacks first began to write of his experiences with some of his neurological patients. His first such book, Ward 23, was burned by Sacks during an episode of self-doubt. His books have been translated into over 25 languages. In addition, Sacks was a regular contributor to The New Yorker, the New York Review of Books, The New York Times, London Review of Books and numerous other medical, scientific and general publications. He was awarded the Lewis Thomas Prize for Writing about Science in 2001.
Sacks's work is featured in a "broader range of media than those of any other contemporary medical author" and in 1990, the New York Times wrote he "has become a kind of poet laureate of contemporary medicine".
Sacks considered his literary style to have grown out of the tradition of 19th century "clinical anecdotes", a literary style that included detailed narrative case histories, which he termed novelistic. He also counted among his inspirations the case histories of the Russian neuropsychologist A. R. Luria, who became a close friend through correspondence between 1973 and 1977, until Dr. Luria died. After the publication of his first book Migraine in 1970, a review by his close friend W. H. Auden encouraged Sacks to adapt his writing style to "be metaphorical, be mythical, be whatever you need".
Sacks described his cases with a wealth of narrative detail, concentrating on the experiences of the patient (in the case of his A Leg to Stand On, the patient was himself). The patients he described were often able to adapt to their situation in different ways despite the fact that their neurological conditions were usually considered incurable. His book Awakenings, upon which the 1990 feature film of the same name is based, describes his experiences using the new drug levodopa on Beth Abraham Hospital post-encephalitic patients.Awakenings was also the subject of the first documentary made (in 1974) for the British television series Discovery.
In his book A Leg to Stand On he wrote about the consequences of a near-fatal accident he had at age 41 in 1974, a year after the publication of Awakenings, when he fell off a cliff and severely injured his left leg while mountaineering alone above Hardangerfjord, Norway.
In some of his other books, he describes cases of Tourette syndrome and various effects of Parkinson's disease. The title article of The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat is about a man with visual agnosia and was the subject of a 1986 opera by Michael Nyman. The title article of his book, An Anthropologist on Mars, which won a Polk Award for magazine reporting, is about Temple Grandin, an autistic professor. He writes in the book's preface that neurological conditions such as autism "can play a paradoxical role, by bringing out latent powers, developments, evolutions, forms of life that might never be seen, or even be imaginable, in their absence." Seeing Voices, Sacks's 1989 book, covers a variety of topics in deaf studies.
In his book The Island of the Colorblind Sacks wrote about an island where many people have achromatopsia (total colourblindness, very low visual acuity and high photophobia). The second section of this book, entitled Cycad Island, describes the Chamorro people of Guam, who have a high incidence of a neurodegenerative disease locally known as Lytico-Bodig disease (a devastating combination of ALS, dementia and parkinsonism). Later, along with Paul Alan Cox, Sacks published papers suggesting a possible environmental cause for the disease, namely the toxin beta-methylamino L-alanine (BMAA) from the cycad nut accumulating by biomagnification in the flying fox bat.
In November 2012 Sacks's book Hallucinations was published. In it he examined why ordinary people can sometimes experience hallucinations and challenges the stigma associated with the word. He explained: "Hallucinations don't belong wholly to the insane. Much more commonly, they are linked to sensory deprivation, intoxication, illness or injury." He also considers the less well known Charles Bonnet syndrome, sometimes found in people who have lost their eyesight. The book was described by Entertainment Weekly as: "Elegant... An absorbing plunge into a mystery of the mind."
Sacks sometimes faced criticism in the medical and disability studies communities. Arthur K. Shapiro for instance, an expert on Tourette syndrome, said Sacks's work was "idiosyncratic" and relied too much on anecdotal evidence in his writings. Researcher Makoto Yamaguchi thought Sacks's mathematical explanations, in his study of the numerically gifted savant twins (in The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat), are irrelevant. Although Sacks has been characterised as a "compassionate" writer and doctor, others have felt that he exploited his subjects. Sacks was called "the man who mistook his patients for a literary career" by British academic and disability rights activist Tom Shakespeare, and one critic called his work "a high-brow freak show". Sacks responded, "I would hope that a reading of what I write shows respect and appreciation, not any wish to expose or exhibit for the thrill ... but it's a delicate business."
He is also the author of The Mind's Eye, Oaxaca Journal, On the Move (his second autobiography), and many articles in The New Yorker and The New York Review of Books.
Before his death in 2015, Sacks founded the Oliver Sacks Foundation, a nonprofit organization established to increase understanding of the brain through using narrative nonfiction and case histories, with goals that include publishing some of Sacks's unpublished writings, and making his vast amount of unpublished writings available for scholarly study. His first posthumous book, "River of Consciousness", an anthology of his essays, was published in October 2017. Most of the essays in "River of Consciousness" he had previously published in various periodicals or in science-essay-anthology books where he was one of many authors, and are no longer readily obtainable. Sacks specified the order of his essays in "River of Consciousness" prior to his death. Some of the essays focus on repressed memories and other tricks the mind plays on itself. His next posthumous book will be a collection of some of his letters. Sacks was a prolific handwritten-letter correspondent, and he never communicated by e-mail.
In 1996, Sacks became a member of the American Academy of Arts and Letters (Literature). He was named a Fellow of the New York Academy of Sciences in 1999. Also in 1999, he became an Honorary Fellow at the Queen's College, Oxford. In 2002 he became Fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences (Class IV—Humanities and Arts, Section 4—Literature) and he was awarded the 2001 Lewis Thomas Prize by Rockefeller University. Sacks was also a Fellow of the Royal College of Physicians (FRCP).
Sacks was awarded honorary doctorates from Georgetown University (1990),College of Staten Island (1991),Tufts University (1991),New York Medical College (1991),Medical College of Pennsylvania (1992),Bard College (1992),Queen's University (Ontario) (2001),Gallaudet University (2005),University of Oxford (2005),Pontificia Universidad Católica del Perú (2006) and Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory (2008).
Oxford University awarded him an honoraryDoctor of Civil Law degree in June 2005.
Sacks received the position "Columbia Artist" from Columbia University in 2007, a post that was created specifically for him and that gave him unconstrained access to the university, regardless of department or discipline.
In 2008 Sacks was appointed Commander of the Order of the British Empire (CBE), for services to medicine, in the Queen's Birthday Honours.
The minor planet 84928 Oliversacks, discovered in 2003, was named in his honour.
In February 2010, Sacks was named as one of the Freedom From Religion Foundation's Honorary Board of distinguished achievers. He described himself as "an old Jewish atheist," a phrase borrowed from his friend Jonathan Miller.
Sacks never married and lived alone for most of his life. He declined to share personal details until late in his life. He addressed his homosexuality for the first time in his 2015 autobiography On the Move: A Life. Celibate for about 35 years since his forties, in 2008 he began a friendship with writer and New York Times contributor Bill Hayes that slowly evolved into a committed long-term partnership that lasted until Sacks's death. He noted in a 2001 interview that severe shyness—which he described as "a disease"—had been a lifelong impediment to his personal interactions.
Sacks believed his shyness stemmed from his prosopagnosia, popularly known as "face blindness", a condition that, coincidentally, he also studied in some of his patients, including the titular man from his work The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat. This neurological disability of his, whose severity and life-impacts Sacks did not fully grasp until he reached middle age, even prevented him from recognising his own reflection in mirrors. Sacks' eldest brother Marcus also had prosopagnosia.
Sacks swam almost every day for nearly his entire life, beginning when his swimming-champion father started him swimming as an infant. He especially became publicly well known for swimming when he lived in the City Island section of the Bronx, as he would routinely swim around the entire island, or swim vast distances away from the island and back.
Illness and death
Sacks underwent radiation therapy in 2006 for a uveal melanoma in his right eye. He discussed his loss of stereoscopic vision caused by the treatment, which eventually resulted in right-eye blindness, in an article and later in his book The Mind's Eye.
In January 2015 metastases from the ocular tumour were discovered in his liver. Sacks announced this development in a February 2015 New York Times op-ed piece and estimated his remaining time in "months". He expressed his intent to "live in the richest, deepest, most productive way I can". He added: "I want and hope in the time that remains to deepen my friendships, to say farewell to those I love, to write more, to travel if I have the strength, to achieve new levels of understanding and insight."
Sacks died from the disease on 30 August 2015 at his home in Manhattan at the age of 82, surrounded by his closest friends.
- ^"Remembering Oliver Sacks"Archived 7 March 2016 at the Wayback Machine., Charlie Rose interview from 1995
- ^ abcdeBrown, Andrew (5 March 2005). "Oliver Sacks Profile: Seeing double". The Guardian. Retrieved 10 August 2008.
- ^ ab"Oliver Sacks dies in New York aged 82"Archived 27 September 2016 at the Wayback Machine.. BBC. Retrieved 30 August 2015
- ^ abCowles, Gregory (30 August 2015). "Oliver Sacks dies at 82 neurologist and author explored the brains quirks". Science. New York Times.
- ^ ab"Biography. Oliver Sacks, MD, FRCP". Official website. Archived from the original on 2 June 2008. Retrieved 9 August 2008.
- ^In the Region of Lost Minds. New York Times archiveArchived 17 August 2016 at the Wayback Machine., retrieved 18 September 2015.
- ^"Meals and Memories". The New Yorker. Retrieved 22 September 2015.
- ^"Profile: Oliver Sacks". the Guardian. Retrieved 22 September 2015.
- ^An Anthropologist on Mars (Knopf, 1995), p. 70
- ^"Herzog family tree".
- ^"Oliver Sacks – Scientist – Abba Eban, my extraordinary cousin". Web of Stories. 2 October 2012. Retrieved 24 August 2015.
- ^"Oliver Sacks: Sabbath". The New York Times. 16 August 2015. Retrieved 24 August 2015.
- ^ abNadine Epstein, (2008), Uncle Xenon: The Element of Oliver SacksArchived 4 January 2016 at the Wayback Machine. Moment Magazine
- ^Sacks, Oliver (2001). Uncle Tungsten: Memories of a Chemical Boyhood. Vintage Books. ISBN 0-375-40448-1.
- ^ abcdefghijklSacks, O. On the Move: A Life. Knopf (2015). ISBN 0385352549
- ^Brent, Frances (1 September 2015). "Book Review// On the Move". Moment. Retrieved 9 February 2016.
- ^ abcd"Oliver Sacks, MD, FRCP". Official site. Archived from the original on 13 July 2008. Retrieved 9 August 2008.
- ^ ab"Columbia University website, section of Psychiatry". Asp.cumc.columbia.edu. Archived from the original on 24 December 2013. Retrieved 29 December 2013.
- ^"Oliver Sacks: Tripping in Topanga, 1963 – The Los Angeles Review of Books". Lareviewofbooks.org. 12 December 2012. Retrieved 4 May 2015.
- ^ abSacks, Oliver (27 August 2012). "Altered States". The New Yorker: 40. Retrieved 14 December 2012.
- ^Sacks, O. Hallucinations. Knopf (2012). ISBN 0307957241
- ^Weschler, Lawrence. "Oliver Sacks, Before the Neurologist's Cancer and New York Times Op-Ed". Vanity Fair. Retrieved 24 August 2015.
- ^"NYU Langone Medical Center Welcomes Neurologist and Author Oliver Sacks, MD"Archived 3 March 2016 at the Wayback Machine.. Newswise.com. 13 September 2012.
- ^[dead link]"Oliver Sacks, MD, FRCP". FACES (Finding a Cure for Epilepsy and Seizures). Archived from the original on 5 September 2015. Retrieved 14 September 2015.
- ^"About the Institute". Institute for Music and Neurologic Function. Archived from the original on 14 May 2008. Retrieved 9 August 2008.
- ^"Henry Z. Steinway honored with 'Music Has Power' award: Beth Abraham Hospital honors piano maker for a lifetime of 'affirming the value of music'". Music Trades Magazine. 1 January 2006. Retrieved 9 August 2008. [dead link]
- ^"2006 Music Has Power Awards featuring performance by Rob Thomas, honouring acclaimed neurologist & author Dr. Oliver Sacks" (Press release). Beth Abraham Family of Health Services. 13 October 2006. Retrieved 9 August 2008.
- ^Sacks, O. Oliver Sacks Curriculum Vitae. Retrieved 2017-01-07 from http://www.oliversacks.com/os/wp-content/uploads/2014/01/Oliver-Sacks-cv-2014.pdf
- ^Steve Silberman. "NeuroTribes: The Legacy of Autism and the Future of Neurodiversity". Retrieved 3 May 2016.
- ^"Archive: Search: The New Yorker—Oliver Sacks". Retrieved 13 August 2008.
- ^"Oliver Sacks—The New York Review of Books". Retrieved 13 August 2008.
- ^"Oliver Sacks. Publications & Periodicals". oliversacks.com. Archived from the original on 10 June 2008. Retrieved 13 August 2008.
- ^[dead link]"Lewis Thomas Prize". The Rockefeller University. 18 March 2002. Retrieved 9 August 2008.
- ^ abSilberman, Steve. "The Fully Immersive Mind of Oliver Sacks". Wired. Retrieved 10 August 2008.
- ^Broyard, Anatole (1 April 1990). "Good books abut (sic) being sick". The New York Times. Retrieved 10 August 2008.
- ^"The Inner Life of the Broken Brain: Narrative and Neurology". Radio National. All in the Mind. 2 April 2005. Archived from the original on 22 February 2008. Retrieved 10 August 2008.
- ^Sacks, O. (2014). Luria and "Romantic Science". In A. Yasnitsky, R. Van der Veer & M. Ferrari (Eds.), The Cambridge Handbook of cultural-historical psychology (517–528). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press
- ^Wallace-Wells, David. "A Brain With a Heart". New York. Retrieved 30 August 2015.
- ^Sacks, Oliver (1996) . "Preface". An Anthropologist on Mars (New ed.). London: Picador. xiii–xviii. ISBN 0-330-34347-5.
- ^Sacks, Oliver (6 July 2013). "The Joy of Old Age. (No Kidding.)". The New York Times.
- ^Video: The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat (1987). The Open Mind. 1987. Retrieved 21 February 2012.
- ^Murch SJ, Cox PA, Banack SA, Steele JC, Sacks OW (October 2004). "Occurrence of beta-methylamino-l-alanine (BMAA) in ALS/PDC patients from Guam". Acta Neurol. Scand.110 (4): 267–9. doi:10.1111/j.1600-0404.2004.00320.x. PMID 15355492.
- ^Cox PA, Sacks OW (March 2002). "Cycad neurotoxins, consumption of flying foxes, and ALS-PDC disease in Guam". Neurology. 58 (6): 956–9. doi:10.1212/wnl.58.6.956
The final stage of life, Dante wrote, is like a ship, gradually lowering its sails at the approach of the harbour. It is a serene image of destination — and eminently unfit to characterize the final decade of Oliver Sacks's life. Against a tide of diminishing health, he added four books to an already impressive catalogue: Musicophilia (2007), The Mind's Eye (2010), Hallucinations (2012) and — only months ago — On the Move, a candid sequel to his childhood memoir Uncle Tungsten (2001). Several more books are nearly finished.
Image: Elena Seibert/Corbis Outline
Oliver Wolf Sacks, who died in New York City on 30 August, was born in London in 1933 into a large Jewish family. His father was a general practitioner, his mother a surgeon. His aunts and uncles were inventors, chemists and physicians. He grew up with the sense that it was a family duty to be 'scientific'. In 1939, at the start of the Second World War, he was sent away to a boarding school in the English Midlands. Sacks, who would rather have been in danger with his family than safe without them, spent four miserable years there. The experience scarred him for life: “sent away” is how he put it 75 years later in the opening sentence of On the Move.
Reunited with his family in 1943, Sacks developed a passion for chemistry. Although he eventually chose to study medicine, contemplation of the periodic table never ceased to soothe him in times of turbulence. Sacks studied at Queen's College, University of Oxford, UK, qualifying as a physician in 1958. He left for the United States in the early 1960s and began five years of medical training, interspersed with riding motorcycles, working out in gyms, experimenting with amphetamines and lifting weights on Muscle Beach, California. When a stint in a neurochemistry lab ended with a resounding, “Sacks, you are a menace in the lab! Why don't you go and see patients — you'll do less harm”, he decided to do just that. In 1965, he took up consulting at Beth Abraham Hospital in the Bronx, New York.
In its wards he encountered some 80 survivors of the 'sleepy sickness' pandemic of the 1920s. He found them to be frozen, mostly, in a statuesque, 'parkinsonian' state. High doses of the Parkinson's disease drug L-dopa 'awoke' them from their lethargy, but — as indicated by their vocabulary, likes, dislikes and skills — in a state of mind belonging to 40 years before and in a world that was no longer theirs. Sacks noticed such diverse reactions from patient to patient that he adapted what was initially intended to be a conventional double-blind trial to a series of case histories, which he published in 1973 as Awakenings.
After reading Awakenings, Russian neuropsychologist Aleksandr Luria sent Sacks a letter. He praised Sacks's talent for observation and description, which reminded him of the nineteenth-century tradition of the neurological narrative. Much of what was to become vintage Sacks unfolded from this book. His work was case-oriented rather than population based, descriptive and intimate rather than detached. And he wrote books, not series of papers in neurological journals. To this he added his signature approach of making house calls. He tried to meet his 'cases' in their natural surroundings. He observed, for example, a surgeon with Tourette's syndrome while he was operating; visited Temple Grandin, a woman with autism, in her office in the animal-sciences department of Colorado State University in Fort Collins; and immersed himself in the world of deaf culture.
The case histories in The Man who Mistook His Wife for a Hat (1985) secured him a worldwide audience. It also helped to articulate his scientific credo. Taking inspiration from German neurologist Kurt Goldstein, Sacks came to think of neurological disorders as challenges to finding a new equilibrium. In response to injury or disease, people go through a phase of adaptation and reorganization, often mobilizing inner resources that have previously lain dormant. According to Sacks, it is the physician's task to help patients to achieve a new order by being sensitive to these altered orientations.
As Sacks indicated in On the Move, growing up at a time when homosexuality was still listed as a mental disorder by the American Psychiatric Association alerted him to the sometimes detrimental consequences of psychiatric labelling. Rather than locking individuals in a 'condition', he took the upbeat perspective of pointing out the benefits over the deficits — sometimes to the point of eclipsing the original pathology. In many cases, this had a liberating effect: one may have Tourette's syndrome and still become a surgeon, or, like Grandin, have autism and have a career in science. Sacks thought in terms of neurodiversity — the idea that conditions result from normal variation — well before the term became common among those who distanced themselves from the medical perspective on autism.
Sacks saw himself as a storyteller, not a theorist. He often said that he was happy to present the case material that others could use to devise grand theories. But each story, of course, is a theory. Like Goldstein and Luria before him, he let his case histories shore up the theory of the brain as an organ that should be understood holistically, as an organism capable of plasticity and compensation. Although not the inventor of the neurological narrative, Oliver was certainly its culmination. For the coming decades, his legacy will be safe in the hearts and minds of millions of readers.
In conversation, I once brought up his numerous honorary degrees, awards and fellowships — but Oliver was quick to raise his hand to halt me, and said simply that he believed he was a good doctor. He felt that his parents recognized that he had become a careful and perceptive neurologist. Even in his eighties, being a good son was still a defining ambition of his life.
Douwe Draaisma is professor of the history of psychology at the University of Groningen in the Netherlands. He interviewed Oliver Sacks in 2005 for his book The Nostalgia Factory and stayed in contact with him.
Search for Douwe Draaisma in:
Correspondence to Douwe Draaisma.
By submitting a comment you agree to abide by our Terms and Community Guidelines. If you find something abusive or that does not comply with our terms or guidelines please flag it as inappropriate.
Neurologist who made house calls.