Oliver Sacks – Books, ‘Awakenings’ & Neurological Works
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 then studied neurology and became a professor at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine. Sacks wrote extensively about his patients and their pathological conditions. His works include alarm clocks, See voices and The man who took his wife for a hat. Sacks died of 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. Her father, Samuel, was a general practitioner and her 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 the age of 6 when World War II began in 1939 to protect him from the frequent bombings that plagued London. When Sacks returned home four years later, he attended his local high school and high schools and developed an interest in both chemistry and medicine, sometimes helping his mother with dissections during her research.
Like his siblings before him, Sacks displayed a keen intellect and excelled in his studies, earning a scholarship to Queen’s College, University of Oxford, which he attended in 1951. In 1954, Sacks obtained his baccalaureate in physiology and biology. In 1958 he received his medical degree from the institution, after which he was committed to 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 there he sent a telegram to his parents informing them of his decision to stay in North America. Hitchhiking 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 secured an internship at Mt. Zion Hospital, followed by a neurology residency at UCLA. In 1965, Sacks’ career took him to New York, where he began teaching at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine in the Bronx and 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 1960s, Sacks found a publisher for a book called Migraine, which described both his own migraine story and case studies of patients he had encountered during his work at the clinic where he was still employed. Despite objections from the clinic and attempts to stop publication of the book, Faber published Migraine in 1970, and Sacks was promptly fired. Although vaguely successful at the time, the book would establish a formula that Sacks would use in most of his future writing, fusing clinical observation, the storytelling skills of a novelist or poet, and a deeply personal and human being that is rarely found in medical writing.
Around the time Sacks began teaching at Albert Einstein College, he began working as a consultant neurologist at Beth Abraham Hospital. There, he became involved with an unusual group of patients suspended in a speechless, motionless, frozen state. Sacks quickly recognized their condition as lethargic encephalitis, the so-called “sleeping sickness,” which had been a worldwide epidemic from 1916 to 1927. By treating the patients with the then-experimental drug L-DOPA, Sacks was able to make them revive and relieve inform them of their symptoms. However, their recovery was only temporary, and patients quickly reverted to their previous state or developed other similar immobilizing conditions.
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In 1973 Sacks published a book about these experiences titled Alarm clocks. The book led to a hospital documentary 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 Oscar nominations, including Best Picture.
The Poet Laureate of Medicine
Once doubled by The New York Times as “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 often literary flair. In 1985 he published The man who took his wife for a hat, which collected previously published essays on disorders ranging from Tourette’s syndrome and autism to phantom limb syndrome and face blindness, a condition from which Sacks himself suffered. Among his most famous and perhaps most representative works, The man who took his wife for a hat has been published in over 20 languages.
Other notable works by Sacks include See voices (1989), in which he describes sign language and its role in deaf culture; An anthropologist on Mars (1995), which tells the story of seven patients who learned to adapt to their handicap; and Musicophilia (2007), in which he mentions cases of neurological disorders with a musical component. On a more personal level, Sacks published the autobiographical works Uncle Tungsten: Memories of a Chemical Childhood (2001) and Oaxaca newspaper (2002).
A unique individual
In 2007, Sacks left his position at Beth Abraham Hospital to become a professor of neurology and psychiatry at Columbia University Medical Center. The institution further underscored its esteem for Sacks when it created Columbia’s new artist designation for him, which recognized his achievements transcending art and science and allowed him to teach in various 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 was made a Commander of the Order of the British Empire.
In 2010 Sacks published a book titled The mind’s eye. He discussed various sensory disorders and how patients learn to deal with them. He also described his own experiences with vision loss, resulting from a rare form of eye cancer for which he was treated in 2005. Sacks unveiled his world again in February 2015, when The New York Times published an op-ed from the doctor who revealed he had terminal liver cancer linked to his previous eye cancer.
Discussing his thoughts on coping with his own mortality, Sacks wrote that “When people die, they cannot be replaced. They leave holes that cannot be filled, because it is the destiny – the genetic and neural destiny – of every human being to be a unique individual, to find their own path, to live their own life, to die their own death. This belief is at the heart of Sacks’ writings on disorders and disabilities.
An autobiography of Sacks, Moving, was published in April 2015. Sacks continued to write during the later stages of his terminal cancer. In a personal essay entitled “Sabbath”, published in the New York Times on August 10, he wrote: “And now, weak, breathless, my once firm muscles melted away by cancer, I find my thoughts, more and more, not of the supernatural or the spiritual, but of what it means to live a good life. and a life worth living – achieving a sense of inner peace. My thoughts drift to the Sabbath, the day of rest, the seventh day of the week, and perhaps also the seventh day of life, when one can feel that one’s work is done, and one can, in good conscience, rest.”
Sacks died at his New York home on August 30, 2015. He was 82.