Who Is Oliver Sacks?
Oliver Wolf Sacks was born in London, England, on July 9, 1933. He studied physiology and medicine at Queens College, Oxford. He went on to study neurology and became a professor at Albert Einstein College of Medicine. Sacks wrote prolifically about his patients and pathological conditions. His works include Awakenings, Seeing Voices and The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat. Sacks died from cancer on August 30, 2015 at the age of 82.
A Medical Family
Oliver Sacks was the youngest of four gifted children born into a medical family. His father, Samuel, was a general practitioner, and his mother, Muriel, was one of the first female surgeons in England. After spending his early years at home, Sacks was sent to boarding school at 6-years-old when World War II began in 1939 to protect him from frequent bombing raids that plagued London. When Sacks returned home four years later, he attended his local grammar and high schools and developed an interest in both chemistry and medicine, at times assisting his mother with dissections during her research.
Like his siblings before him, Sacks exhibited a keen intellect and excelled in his studies, earning a scholarship to Queen’s College at Oxford University, which he attended in 1951. In 1954, Sacks earned his bachelor’s degree in physiology and biology. In 1958, he received his medical degree from the institution, after which time he interned at a London hospital and worked briefly as a surgeon in Birmingham.
What Did Oliver Sacks Discover?
In 1960, Sacks took a trip to Canada, and while there he sent a telegram to his parents informing them of his decision to stay in North America. Hitchhiking his way south, Sacks eventually landed in San Francisco, where he immersed himself in the local scene, experimenting with drugs and befriending some of the city’s local poets.
Despite these freewheeling adventures, Sacks remained committed to science and gained an internship at Mt. Zion Hospital, followed by a residency in neurology at UCLA. In 1965, Sacks’s career took him to New York City, where he began teaching at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine in the Bronx as well as working at various clinics in the area. It was his experiences during this time that would lead to his first foray into writing.
In the late ’60s, Sacks found a publisher for a book titled Migraine, which described both his own history as a migraine sufferer and the case studies of patients he had encountered during his work at the clinic where he was still employed. Despite the clinic’s objections and attempts to halt the book’s publication, Faber released Migraine in 1970, and Sacks was promptly fired. Though only vaguely successful at the time, the book would establish a formula that Sacks would employ in most of his future writing, fusing clinical observation, the storytelling skills of a novelist or poet and a deeply personal, human empathy rarely found in medical writing.
Around the time Sacks began teaching at Albert Einstein College, he started working as a consulting neurologist at Beth Abraham Hospital. While there, he became involved with an unusual group of patients suspended in a speechless, motionless, frozen state. Sacks quickly recognized their condition as encephalitis lethargica, the so-called “sleepy sickness,” which had been a worldwide epidemic from 1916 to 1927. Treating the patients with the then-experimental drug L-DOPA, Sacks was able to revive them and relieve them of their symptoms. Their recovery, however, proved only temporary, and the patients soon fell back into their previous state or developed other similar immobilizing conditions.
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In 1973, Sacks published a book about these experiences titled Awakenings. The book led to a documentary at the hospital the following year and inspired the 1982 play A Kind of Alaska, written by Nobel Prize-winning playwright Harold Pinter. In 1990, the book became the basis for a critically acclaimed film of the same name starring Robin Williams as Oliver Sacks and Robert De Niro as one of the patients. The film received three Academy Award nominations, including Best Picture.
The Poet Laureate of Medicine
Once dubbed by The New York Times as the “poet laureate of medicine,” Sacks continued to live his “double life” as scientist and author, documenting his unique medical encounters with a philosophical approach and an often literary flair. In 1985, he published The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat, which collected previously published essays on disorders ranging from Tourette’s syndrome to autism to phantom limb syndrome and face blindness, a condition Sacks himself suffered. Among his most famous and perhaps most representative works, The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat was published in more than 20 languages.
Other notable works by Sacks include Seeing Voices (1989), in which he described sign language and its role in the culture of the deaf; An Anthropologist on Mars (1995), which tells the story of seven patients who have learned to adapt to their disabilities; and Musicophilia (2007), in which he discusses cases involving neurological disorders with a musical component. On a more personal level, Sacks published the autobiographical works Uncle Tungsten: Memories of a Chemical Boyhood (2001) and Oaxaca Journal (2002).
A Unique Individual
In 2007, Sacks left his position at Beth Abraham Hospital to become a professor of neurology and psychiatry at the Columbia University Medical Center. The institution further emphasized its esteem for Sacks when it created for him the new designation of Columbia Artist, which recognized his achievements transcending art and science and allowed him to teach across a range of departments. While teaching and publishing, Sacks received numerous honors and awards, including honorary fellowships from the American Academy of Arts and Letters and the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and honorary degrees from Georgetown, Tufts and Oxford, among others. In 2008, he became Commander of the Order of the British Empire.
In 2010, Sacks published a book titled The Mind’s Eye. In it, he discussed various sensory disorders and how patients learned to cope with them. He also described his own experiences with vision loss, resulting from a rare form of ocular cancer he was treated for in 2005. Sacks laid bare his world yet again in February 2015, when The New York Times published an editorial by the physician that revealed he had terminal liver cancer related to his earlier eye cancer.
Discussing his thoughts on facing his own mortality, Sacks wrote that “When people die, they cannot be replaced. They leave holes that cannot be filled, for it is the fate—the genetic and neural fate—of every human being to be a unique individual, to find his own path, to live his own life, to die his own death.” This belief is at the core of Sacks’ writing on disorders and disabilities.
An autobiography by Sacks, On the Move, was published in April 2015. Sacks continued to write during the final stages of his terminal cancer. In a personal essay titled “Sabbath,” published in The New York Times on August 10, he wrote: “And now, weak, short of breath, my once-firm muscles melted away by cancer, I find my thoughts, increasingly, not on the supernatural or spiritual, but on what is meant by living a good and worthwhile life — achieving a sense of peace within oneself. I find my thoughts drifting to the Sabbath, the day of rest, the seventh day of the week, and perhaps the seventh day of one’s life as well, when one can feel that one’s work is done, and one may, in good conscience, rest.”
Sacks died at his home in New York City on August 30, 2015. He was 82.