Oliver Sacks 1933-
(Full name Oliver Wolf Sacks) English-born American nonfiction writer and memoirist.
The following entry presents an overview of Sacks's career through 2002. For further information on his life and works, see CLC, Volume 67.
A neurologist who has been praised for his compassionate and personal approach to both the physiological and psychological effects of illness, Sacks is a proponent of the rehumanization of medicine. He advocates a holistic approach predicated on the belief that health is a consequence of the complex interrelationship between mind, body, and lifestyle. Recognizing that individuals respond in dramatically different ways to disease, Sacks asserts that patients must be permitted to take an active role in determining an appropriate cure for their specific illness. Critics commend his collections of case histories as accessible and interesting, and note that they appeal to both specialists and laypersons.
Sacks was born on July 9, 1933, in London, England. His parents were both physicians. He attended Oxford University, where he received both his undergraduate and medical degrees. He decided to immigrate to the United States in 1960 after visiting California. While attending the University of California from 1962 to 1965, Sacks, an avid motorcyclist, provided medical services to a local chapter of the Hell's Angels. In 1965 Sacks became a researcher after winning a fellowship from the Albert Einstein College of Medicine in the Bronx, New York. However, he was eventually dismissed from his duties, and in 1966 became a staff neurologist at Beth Abraham Hospital for Incurables in the Bronx. There he discovered a group of patients suffering from a range of debilitating symptoms, the worst of which was a coma-like “sleep.” These patients, Sacks later discovered, were survivors of the 1916-27 encephalitis lethargica—or “sleeping sickness”—epidemic that had afflicted nearly five million people. The book Awakenings (1973) is an account of Sacks's attempts to help these people; it was eventually adapted into an award-winning film in 1990. In 1991 Sacks and more than a thousand other staff members at the Bronx Psychiatric Center lost their jobs due to state budget cuts. He has continued his clinical studies at Beth Abraham Hospital and is a volunteer professor at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine. He has received several awards and fellowships, including a Guggenheim Fellowship in 1991, the Oskar Pfister Award from the American Psychiatric Association in 1988, and the Presidential Award from the American Neurological Association in 1991.
Sacks is perhaps best known for his nonfiction book Awakenings, which traces the effects of an experimental drug on patients stricken with “sleeping sickness.” With the administration of the drug L-DOPA, patients who had been “asleep” for more than forty years suddenly awakened. However, aggression and difficulty in adapting to a changed world proved too disorienting for many in the group. Some died; others reverted back to their trance-like states. Of the twenty patients Sacks chronicled in Awakenings, many showed moderate long-term improvement but only three were able to adapt to the drug and live relatively normal lives. In A Leg to Stand On (1984), Sacks explores illness from a patient's viewpoint, tracing his own recovery from a serious leg injury sustained while mountaineering in Norway. He further examines illness from the patient's perspective in his next volume, The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat and Other Clinical Tales (1985), a collection of case histories about various perception, memory, and language maladies. While Sacks demonstrates the variety of abnormal conditions that can arise from brain damage, he also explains ways in which people learn to survive, discover meaning, and find fulfillment in their lives despite their disabilities.
In Seeing Voices (1989) Sacks departs from his focus on neurological and physical disorders to investigate the nature of language and communication. The book is comprised of three essays: a history of deafness, an examination of sign language, and an account of the 1988 student revolt at the predominantly deaf Gallaudet University in Washington, D.C., at which the students, angered by the appointment of a non-deaf president, staged a sit-in until their demands for a new president were met. Another collection of case histories, An Anthropologist on Mars (1995), explores the struggles of several people afflicted with neurological disorders such as autism and Tourette's syndrome. In The Island of the Colorblind and Cycad Island (1997) Sacks focuses on the effects of two genetic diseases found in the Pacific islands: achromatopsia, or colorblindness, found in Pingelap, and a neurological disorder called lytico-bodig, prevalent on the island of Guam. His 2001 memoir, Uncle Tungsten, recalls his childhood in wartime London, his passion for chemistry and science, and the influence of his large and accomplished family.
Sacks has been praised for his case histories that provide insights into the individual's struggle with illness and disability, particularly his honest and moving portrayals of the devastating effects of disease on the everyday lives of those affected. Commentators note the unifying theme of his work—his belief that medicine must not ignore humanist elements—and laud his compassionate approach to medicine. Moreover, they consider his exploration of the role of physicians in the diagnostic and therapeutic process an important one. Critics analyze Sacks's attempts to bring together the two kinds of clinical treatment—“identification,” which focuses on diagnostically relevant data, and “understanding,” which is a benevolent approach to the patient's experience. They have also discussed the influence of Russian neurologist A. R. Luria, author R. D. Laing, and psychoanalyst Sigmund Freud on Sacks's clinical theory. Regarded as an erudite and empathetic writer, Sacks is one of the best-known and most distinguished neurologists in the United States.
Migraine: Evolution of a Common Disorder (nonfiction) 1970; revised as Migraine: Understanding a Common Disorder, 1985
Awakenings (nonfiction) 1973
A Leg to Stand On (nonfiction) 1984
The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat and Other Clinical Tales (nonfiction) 1985
Seeing Voices: A Journey into the World of the Deaf (nonfiction) 1989
An Anthropologist on Mars: Seven Paradoxical Tales (nonfiction) 1995
The Island of the Colorblind and Cycad Island (nonfiction) 1997
Uncle Tungsten: Memories of a Chemical Boyhood (memoir) 2001
Oaxaca Journal (nonfiction) 2002
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SOURCE: Christiansen, John B. Review of Seeing Voices, by Oliver Sacks. Contemporary Sociology 19, no. 6 (November 1990): 894-95.
[In the following review, Christiansen offers a mixed assessment of Seeing Voices.]
Oliver Sacks begins his book [Seeing Voices] by issuing several disclaimers: he isn't deaf, he doesn't sign, he isn't an interpreter or a teacher, he knew little about deafness or deaf people before starting to write about them four years ago, he's not an expert on child development, nor is he a historian or a linguist. Nor, I might add, is he a sociologist. By and large, though, none of this matters a great deal as Sacks' book is a thoughtful and thought-provoking discussion of the “world of the deaf.”
The book is divided into three parts. Chapters 1 and 3 are revised versions of articles that previously appeared in The New York Review of Books, while chapter 2, the largest segment of the book, appears in this volume for the first time. In the first chapter Sacks makes a strong case for Sign, that is, for indigenous signed languages such as American Sign Language or British Sign Language (which are completely different from each other, making signed communication between American and British deaf people almost impossible). Following recent research, he argues that these signed languages are, in fact, complete languages, every bit as comprehensive as...
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SOURCE: Wiltshire, John. “Deficits and Enhancements: Reflections on the Writings of Oliver Sacks.” Cambridge Quarterly 20, no. 4 (1991): 304-21.
[In the following essay, Wiltshire provides a survey of Sacks's writings and attributes his success to his “capacity to turn deficits into wonders.”]
‘Neurology's Favourite Word is “Deficit”, denoting an impairment or incapacity of neurological function,’ writes Oliver Sacks at the opening of his very successful collection of case studies, The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat: ‘loss of speech, loss of language, loss of memory, loss of vision, loss of dexterity, loss of identity and a myriad other lacks and losses …’ Much of the book's success (the title study has been made into a filmed opera) can be attributed to Sacks's capacity to turn deficits into wonders, to write about cases of sometimes extraordinary human loss in a way that reveals the scarcely visited reaches and capacities of the mind. Sacks's writing has interested a large general public in medical and neurological matters, for his books are entertainments which at the same time argue intensely and emotionally for the conviction that neither medicine nor neurology can be mechanical sciences, and that above all the experience of the individual patient is important. It is nearly twenty years now since ‘The Great Awakening’, the article which anticipated his most...
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SOURCE: Weinraub, Judith. “Oliver Sacks: Hero of the Hopeless.” Washington Post 114 (13 January 1991): F1, F6.
[In the following essay, Weinraub investigates the origins of and the controversy surrounding Awakenings and discusses the impact of the cinematic adaptation on Sacks's life.]
“I had a dream about manganese the other night,” says Oliver Sacks, chortling over the idea. “I can't think of all the details, but I felt so good when I woke up.
“It was a dream about a stable mental object,” he continues with delight. “You know, people may come and go, but manganese is forever. Its electrons behave themselves. They've got Pauli's exclusion principle. They can't leave orbits. You know where you are with manganese.”
As a source of inspiration for dreams, the periodic table of elements isn't exactly standard. But for writer-neurologist Sacks, it's a natural.
A shy, burly Santa Claus of a man, Sacks, 57, is a consummate scientist, a compassionate clinician. He is also the model for the brilliant, caring doctor whose work with seemingly hopeless patients in a Bronx hospital for the chronically ill is described in the new movie Awakenings.
And today, huddled self-protectively at his desk in his office in a Greenwich Village apartment building, he is not at all comfortable with finding himself at the wrong...
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SOURCE: McRae, Murdo William. “Oliver Sacks's Neurology of Identity.” In The Literature of Science: Perspectives on Popular Scientific Writing, edited by Murdo William McRae, pp. 97-110. Athens: The University of Georgia Press, 1993.
[In the following essay, McRae traces the origins of Sacks's “neurology of identity,” a term given to his treatment of neurological patients as individuals.]
It is impossible not to respect and admire Oliver Sacks, successful neurologist and best-selling author of five books, one of them the basis for Penny Marshall's popular 1990 film Awakenings. Once himself a victim of neurological impairment, Sacks displays immense sympathy and compassion for his patients, many of whom have endured lives of unimaginable suffering. Stylistically and rhetorically vigorous, even audacious at times, his philosophically sophisticated prose contains a virtually encyclopedic range of allusions, not only to neurologists such as Henry Head or Hughlings Jackson, but also to philosophers and poets such as Gottfried Wilhelm von Leibniz, Pythagoras and René Descartes, John Donne and W. H. Auden. Perhaps most appealing, however, is his passionate rejection of the mechanistic and depersonalized ways in which traditional neurology views each patient. Sacks advocates instead a “neurology of identity,” superior to the neurological tradition because it would not regard each patient as a...
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SOURCE: Hawkins, Anne Hunsaker. “Oliver Sacks's Awakenings: Reshaping Clinical Discourse.” Configurations 1, no. 2 (spring 1993): 229-45.
[In the following essay, Hawkins describes Sacks's trajective approach to clinical experience found in Awakenings.]
THE METAPHOR OF TRAJECTIVE DISCOURSE
“My ideal doctor,” wrote the late Anatole Broyard, “would be my Virgil, leading me through my purgatory or inferno, pointing out the sights as we go. He would resemble Oliver Sacks, the neurologist who wrote Awakenings and The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat. I can imagine Dr. Sacks entering my condition, looking around at it from the inside like a benevolent landlord with a tenant, trying to see how he could make the premises more livable for me. He would see the genius of my illness. He would mingle his daemon with mine: we would wrestle with my fate together.”1 At first glance, Virgil and Sacks—Dante's imagined guide in the Divine Comedy and the very real twentieth-century physician—may seem an oddly assorted pair, but they are alike in that both poet and physician-writer can be seen as entering into the world of sin or sickness and accompanying the pilgrim or the patient through it.2
The fantasy of a physician accompanying a patient into the “Hell” of illness is an interesting one, and resonates...
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SOURCE: Beehler, Rodger. “Madness and Method.” Philosophy 68, no. 265 (July 1993): 369-88.
[In the following essay, Beehler finds similarities in the exploration of madness in Awakenings and R. D. Laing's The Divided Self.]
The daily practice of clinical medicine, or so it seems to me, demands theoretical and even ‘philosophical’ viewpoints, and precisely guides one to the viewpoints one needs. That medicine provides a philosophical education … is a delightful discovery; it seems to me strange that this is not more generally recognized.
—Oliver Sacks, 1982
The attention recently accorded to the writings of Oliver Sacks has once more recalled to a community wider than medical personnel the deeply-moving strangeness of human beings. I refer especially to Sacks' book The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat, and to his earlier book Awakenings (which last has inspired a current commercial film of the same title).1 A comparison that comes immediately to mind is R. D. Laing's work, which was widely read and discussed in the decade from, roughly, 1965 to 1975.2
Laing's and Sacks' writings give rise to questions of many different kinds about human experience, and about what we awkwardly refer to as ‘selfhood’. These include questions about...
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SOURCE: Diamond, Seymour. Review of Migraine, by Oliver Sacks. JAMA: The Journal of the American Medical Association 271, no. 6 (9 February 1994): 478.
[In the following review, Diamond deems the revised and expanded edition of Migraine a readable and insightful text.]
During the last five years, there has been a plethora of books published on headaches. This profusion is probably due to the multitude of investigations into headache as well as the extensive availability of newer therapies for cephalalgic patients. However, this revised and expanded edition of Oliver Sacks' Migraine is a welcome addition.
Dr Sacks' previous books, Awakenings and The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat, have stimulated enormous lay interest in the neurological sciences. This revised edition of Migraine, although directed to a general readership, should be added to the library of any physician caring for headache patients. The author has produced a readable text that provides insight into, and knowledge of, a complex and poorly understood disorder.
The first two of five parts, “The Experience of Migraine” and “The Occurrence of Migraine,” similar to the previous edition, include simplified yet accurate descriptions of symptoms and intricacies. The author's discussion of migraine and its relationship to epilepsy may cause some confusion and...
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SOURCE: Kohn, Marek. “Voyages to Inner Space.” New Statesman & Society 8, no. 340 (17 February 1995): 49.
[In the following review of An Anthropologist on Mars, Kohn praises Sacks's case histories of patients suffering from neurological afflictions as poignant and insightful.]
Already, the most frequently asked question about Dr Sacks' new collection of case studies [An Anthropologist on Mars] appears to be whether the title is biographical or autobiographical. The obsession with the doctor at the expense of the patient is retrograde. Like any author, Sacks sees his own vision in his subjects. But he is essentially contemplative, which transforms the traditional air of mastery that pervades the doctor-patient relationship in most physicians' prose. He is at his best with Temple Grandin, an animal scientist who writes about her autism. They meet as equals; scientists of autism both, since Grandin is the nearest a person gets to being a dispassionate observer of herself.
Yet Grandin cares passionately about the welfare of cattle, having worked on the humane design of slaughterhouses. She is preoccupied with understanding human emotion—hence the book's title, which is in fact her own self-description. Like many autistics, she identifies with the Star Trek character Data, the android whose deepest longing is to become human. Some of her lines are uncannily...
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SOURCE: Chidley, Joe. “The Case of the Quirky Neurologist.” Maclean's 108, no. 11 (13 March 1995): 60-1.
[In the following favorable assessment of An Anthropologist on Mars, Chidley contends that Sacks “skillfully bridges the chasm between diagnosis and literature, blending sometimes highly clinical observations of neurological disorders with a profound thoughtfulness for the person affected.”]
Oliver Sacks, distinguished neurologist and best-selling author, is having trouble deciding what to have for lunch. The doctor strokes his bushy beard and hems and haws as he looks over the room-service menu of the Toronto hotel where he is staying while promoting his latest book, An Anthropologist on Mars. Rather dejectedly, he settles for a club sandwich. But the thought process—looking for the right thing to satisfy his craving—clearly fascinates him. Without prompting, he describes his reaction when, almost 20 years ago, he was laid up in a London hospital with a leg injury and a friend brought him a smoked trout. “It not only put me into ecstasy,” Sacks recalls, “but I also had the feeling that really much of my misery in the hospital was due to an unconscious yearning for a smoked trout. Indeed, perhaps my whole life was accreted about this previously unrecognized yearning.” He pauses—another hem and a haw—and adds: “I felt the same with regard to [Danish...
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SOURCE: Hunter, William. “Your Friendly Neighborhood Neurologist: Dr. Oliver Sacks and the Cultural View of Physicians.” Journal of Popular Culture 28, no. 4 (spring 1995): 93-102.
[In the following essay, Hunter analyzes the dichotomy of the nurturing doctor/doctor as authority figure in Sacks's work.]
Hold the physician in honor for he is essential to you, and God it was who established his profession. From God, the doctor has his wisdom, thus God's creation work continues without cease. He who is a sinner toward his Maker will be defiant toward his doctor.
The above lines found on a sampler in a doctor's office in the Midwest (Katon 1) demonstrate a longstanding cultural view of physicians in the United States. Because of the level of education they have completed and their role in the life and death decisions of their patients, doctors have enjoyed a level of trust and respect which has been displayed on few other careers. Doctors have also been trained to look upon themselves with a great deal of pride and belief in their own powers and abilities. In contemporary history, however, this superior position has caused physicians to be viewed not as servants of God, but as cold, impersonal technicians who refuse to concern themselves with the human interests of their patients. This shift in cultural attitudes has...
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SOURCE: Sacks, Oliver, and David Lazar. “An Interview with Oliver Sacks: Above All, the Paradox.” Ohio Review 54 (1995): 109-18.
[In the following interview, Sacks discusses his interest in disease and treatment, his writing process, and the influence of W. H. Auden on his life and work.]
[Lazar]: One thing that comes up in your work over and over again for me is the shadow of Martin Buber. In much of what you talk about and much of what you seem to reach for in Awakenings and elsewhere, there is a kind of hook between you and the patient, and between the patient and himself or herself, and between you and the audience. There is a kind of play with the I-You relationship, and even the I-Thou relationship at its most secondary and most metaphysical.
[Sacks]: I used to read a lot of Buber once. My bookshelves are strewn with fossils of past passions. Mr. Buber is no exception; I don't think I've gone to it in ten or fifteen years. To begin at the wrong end, which is sort of what I'm writing about, I don't know to whom or for whom I write. And for me, the primary writing is always in notebooks, like this one here, although I don't keep conventional journals. My journeys are documented after, which generates the journal quality of some of my books. Which is what I have done sort of lifelong. Although I call these notebooks, they are not notes. I never...
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SOURCE: Diamond, Jared. “Outcasts of the Islands.” New York Review of Books 44, no. 4 (6 March 1997): 15-18.
[In the following essay, Diamond finds The Island of the Colorblind an insightful and well-written “account of patients with two neurological disorders but also of island plants, islands as laboratories of plant and animal evolution, and many other aspects of islands.”]
In 1964, while studying bird evolution on the tropical Pacific island of New Guinea, I happened to set up camp among a tribe known as the Fore. I soon found my attention drawn away from birds to a human tragedy unfolding around me. Many of the tribespeople, children as well as adults, were limping on crutches, or unable to control their facial muscles, or lying semiparalyzed in their huts. When I asked what was wrong, their healthy relatives answered with the single word “kuru,” as if no more explanation were needed. Kuru, the Fore way of death, is now internationally notorious as a neurological disease, always fatal, and confined to that one tribe living in a group of mountain valleys only a few hundred square miles in extent.
As I proceeded through the New Guinea highlands in search of birds, every ten or twenty miles I passed into the territory of a different tribe, each with its own language, its own culture—and its own disease or genetic anomaly. The second...
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SOURCE: Hanlon, David. Review of The Island of the Colorblind and Cycad Island, by Oliver Sacks. Contemporary Pacific 11, no. 1 (spring 1999): 270.
[In the following review, Hanlon argues that “despite the charm of much of its narrative and the fluidity of its prose, Island of the Colorblind remains little more than another travel account of life in the Pacific that reduces indigenous peoples to the category of observed and controlled subjects.”]
Oliver Sacks, professor of neurology at Albert Einstein College of Medicine and author of several popularly acclaimed books, has written an account of his travels to Micronesia [The Island of the Colorblind]. He describes his book as a “very personal, idiosyncratic, perhaps eccentric view of the islands, informed in part by a lifelong romance with islands and island botany” (xii). It certainly is that. Sacks recounts two trips to the region, though the exact dates of these journeys remain unclear. The first, to Pingelap via Pohnpei, both islands being in the Eastern Caroline group, appears to have taken place in late 1993; the second trip, to Guam and the Northern Mariana Islands, may have occurred in 1994. Confusion over the exact location in time of these trips is of lesser concern, however, than the intellectual, literary, and colonial genealogies informing Sacks' narrative and his representations of various Micronesian peoples....
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SOURCE: Cassuto, Leonard. “Oliver Sacks: The P. T. Barnum of the Postmodern World?” American Quarterly 52, no. 2 (June 2000): 326-33.
[In the following essay, Cassuto explores Sacks's representation of the disabled, arguing that he tends to imbue his case studies with aspects of the freak show.]
The historic problem in representing disabled people's lives has always been the control of that representation. When others speak for the disabled, they often point the way to the freak show and the medical theater, two arenas of human objectification. The freak show, which flourished well into the twentieth century, depended on the spectacular mystification of disability; promoters exhibited disabled people as wondrous creatures of stupefying difference. Medical discourse has been fairly credited with killing off the freak show by rendering its fantastic displays in prosaic terms as medical anomalies.1 But in place of the freak show's alienating presentations, medicine has substituted a different kind of objectification, reducing disabled people to case studies of their “defects” and turning them into props in a theatrical display of pathology. Typically, contemporary narratives of disabled lives treat the freak show and the medical case study as Scylla and Charybdis—the author usually designs a course to avoid them, often seeking to repudiate one or both along the way. Within this...
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SOURCE: Sacks, Oliver, and Tracy Cochran. “Oliver Sacks: In Search of the Truth of Being.” Publishers Weekly 248, no. 40 (1 October 2001): 32-3.
[In the following interview, Cochran identifies the search for truth as the central concern of Sacks's writings.]
At first, the famous neurologist and author Oliver Sacks hangs back like a shy animal. It is Kate Edgar, his down-to-earth editor and assistant, who strides across the common area of a bright suite of offices in downtown Manhattan, greeting PW and gently insisting that we take her green fleece jacket to swaddle ourselves against the blasting air-conditioned cold of Sacks's own office. Sacks watches from a distance.
Dressed in a green T-shirt and khakis, his 68-year-old body looks robust and powerful, yet the man inhabiting the rugged frame looks as earnest and as excruciatingly vulnerable as Robin Williams's portrayal of him in the movie version of his 1973 book Awakenings, which chronicled the brief chemical resurrections of an extraordinary group of people who had spent decades frozen in trance-like states following bouts with sleeping sickness.
In light of recent events, it is relevant to note up front that the sensitivity and intense attentiveness that are so visible in Sacks are gifts that were greatly shaped by the trauma of war. Suddenly, it is easier to understand why Sacks, who was born...
(The entire section is 2005 words.)
SOURCE: Perutz, M. F. “Growing up among the Elements.” New York Review of Books 48, no. 17 (1 November 2001): 46-8.
[In the following essay, Perutz regards Uncle Tungsten as an enjoyable and accessible memoir of Sacks's life and love of science and learning.]
London's Science Museum in South Kensington was closed during the Second World War. When it reopened in 1945, the twelve-year-old Oliver Sacks discovered there the periodic table of the chemical elements. They were written in large letters on a wall, with samples of each element or one of its compounds attached to each name. That night Oliver could hardly sleep for excitement. To a boy who was already a keen amateur chemist, the revelation that the apparently disconnected properties of the elements could be fitted into a logical system gave the first sense of the power of the human mind. Sacks writes:
In that first, long, rapt encounter in the Science Museum, I was convinced that the periodic table was neither arbitrary nor superficial, but a representation of truths which would never be overturned, but would, on the contrary, continually be confirmed, show new depths with new knowledge, because it was as deep and simple as nature itself. And the perception of this produced in my twelve-year-old self a sort of ecstasy, the sense (in Einstein's words) that “a corner of the great veil had been...
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SOURCE: Christ, Mary. “Oliver Sacks's Science Project.” Book, no. 19 (November-December 2001): 48.
[In the following essay, Christ offers a brief profile of Sacks's life and literary career.]
A man walks into a bar carrying a spectroscope. The punch line? There isn't one—this is just a typical Friday night for Oliver Sacks, world-famous neurologist. “They have all sorts of interesting fluorescent lights,” says Sacks, who had wandered into a pub near his office in lower Manhattan. He has carried the pocket spectroscope—a device for observing the color breakdown of light—since childhood. “Within ten minutes I had everyone talking about spectroscopy instead of sex,” he laughs. “An achievement!”
His enthusiasm for science is contagious, and it shows elsewhere—in his book sales, for one. Sacks, the author of highly readable and affecting case studies of the brain, such as The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat and An Anthropologist on Mars, is well on his way to doing for neuropathology what Stephen Hawking has done for physics and what Carl Sagan did for astronomy. Bearded and bespectacled at age sixty-eight, he has now written a memoir: Uncle Tungsten: Memories of a Chemical Boyhood, just released from Alfred A. Knopf.
Sacks is lucky to have made it to memoir-writing age. He grew up in postwar London, and by the time he was a...
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SOURCE: Gross, John. “The Man Who Fell in Love with a Table.” Spectator 287, no. 9047 (29 December 2001): 30-1.
[In the following review, Gross views Uncle Tungsten as an insightful memoir and a noteworthy achievement.]
When Oliver Sacks was a boy, one of his teachers wrote in an end-of-term report: ‘Sacks will go far if he does not go too far.’ Certainly the young Oliver didn't do things by halves. The great passion of his boyhood was chemistry, which he pursued with an astonishing energy; but that still left room for a swarm of lesser passions, from music to photography. Any one of them would have taken up a large slice of an ordinary boy's spare time.
Sacks's parents were doctors—his mother a gynaecologist, his father a GP—and from the outset there was an assumption that the future author of Awakenings and The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat would follow in their footsteps. But there were broader scientific traditions in the family as well. Thanks to a remarkable autodidact grandfather, most of Sacks's many uncles and aunts on his mother's side had had some kind of scientific education. A number of them, along with some of his cousins, became scientists or mathematicians themselves, and as his own interest in science flowered he could rely on the encouragement of a formidable family support-system. There was Auntie Len, for instance, ‘my...
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SOURCE: Kadanoff, Leo P. “The Elements of an Education.” Science 295, no. 5554 (18 January 2002): 448.
[In the following favorable review of Uncle Tungsten, Kadanoff asserts that “readers, from practicing scientists to intellectually curious high school students, can expect to appreciate the colorful life story recounted, the interesting person revealed, and the excellent history of chemistry retold.”]
Oliver Sacks is a physician, scientist, and author known for his fascinating stories of people coping with amazing neurological disabilities. In Uncle Tungsten, he recounts his scientific boyhood in Britain during the period around World War II. Sacks was born into a large and close-knit family, and he was surrounded by relatives who made science both their work and their hobby. This memoir focuses on the traumas of his separation from family during the war, his fears of insanity, and the redemption he achieved through throwing himself into scientific studies. As Sacks tells his own personal and scientific life story, he also recounts the histories of his family and of the science of chemistry.
The early part of the book describes young Oliver's extensive and foolhardy chemical experiments. In a home basement laboratory, he acquaints himself with the properties of the different chemical elements by the classic processes of mixing and boiling, exploding and burning,...
(The entire section is 785 words.)
Anderson, Brom. “Two Healers.” Yale Review 77, no. 2 (March 1988): 172-82.
Labels the case histories of The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat “dramas of identity.”
Anker, Roy. “Finding Life in the Movies.” Cresset 55, no. 7 (May 1992): 27-30.
Contrasts Awakenings with its cinematic adaptation.
Budge, Alice, and Emil Dickstein. “The Doctor as Patient: Bioethical Dilemmas Reflected in Literary Narratives.” Literature and Medicine 7 (1988): 132-37.
Examines the depiction of doctor-patient relationships in A Leg to Stand On.
Diedrich, Lisa. “Breaking down: A Phenomenology of Disability.” Literature and Medicine 20, no. 2 (fall 2001): 209-30.
Examination of the philosophical meaning of disability, discussed through several case histories, one of them involving Sacks himself.
Herbert, Wray. “The Neuronal Zone.” Psychology Today 20, no. 2 (February 1986): 80.
Reviews The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat, noting that Sacks's case studies are “really more like fables, tragic and extraordinary excursions into alternative realities.”
Kauffmann, Stanley. “Wastelands.” New Republic 204, no. 1-2 (7 January 1991): 32-3....
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