Hailed as one of the great clinical writers of the twentieth century, Oliver Wolf Sacks describes in his books the often bizarre worlds of patients trapped by their neurological afflictions. The son of Samuel and Elsie (Landau) Sacks, both of whom were neurologists, Sacks took an early interest in medicine. Reflecting the veneration for the medical field instilled by their parents, two of Sacks’s three brothers also became physicians. Sacks attended Queen’s College, Oxford University, where he earned a master’s degree in biochemistry in 1956. He continued his medical studies at Middlesex Hospital in London until 1960, conducting internships in medicine, surgery, and neurology there. He completed his residency in neurology and neuropathology at the University of California, Los Angeles, in 1965. He has undertaken medical appointments and professorships at many hospitals and research institutions, including the Albert Einstein College of Medicine in New York, the Bronx Psychiatric Center, New York University School of Medicine, Beth Abraham Hospital, and Mt. Sinai Medical Center, New York, as well as maintaining his own private neurology practice. He has received many honorary degrees and awards, for both his medical and his literary endeavors. Among the latter are the Hawthornden Prize in 1974 for Awakenings; the Harold D. Vursell Memorial Award in 1989 from the American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters; the George S. Polk Award (1994), a National Association of Science Writers Award (1995), and the Esquire/Apple/Waterstone Book of the Year Award (1995), all for An Anthropologist on Mars; and, in 2002, the Lewis Thomas Prize from Rockefeller University, which recognizes the literary work of scientists.
Sacks fits this description well: A talented clinician, he also has the literary gift of being able to write clearly and compassionately about a wide range of complex neurological disorders. In the tradition of his mentor, the great Russian neurologist A. R. Luria, Sacks is able to dramatize his patients’ inner lives and, in his depictions of their bizarre and baffling symptoms, reflect on the mysteries of the human mind. Through the success of his books, he has been able to reach beyond his specialty to a broad general audience.
Sacks’s earliest book, Migraine, is a voluminous study of this strange and often excruciating neurological malady, which may beset a patient for an entire lifetime. Sacks, who suffers from migraines himself, has compiled a full account of the history and etiology of the disease, which is sometimes accompanied by visions of luminous wheels, auras, lights, or other psychovisual hallucinations. He describes the visionary experiences of some famous mystics, such as the medieval nun Hildegard von Bingen, in terms of their migraines. Sacks’s revised edition of Migraine updates his original research and adds additional case histories and clinical material.
Awakenings presents case histories of twenty elderly New York patients with sleeping sickness who later developed symptoms of Parkinson’s disease. Many of them had been hospitalized for decades in a nearly catatonic state until 1969, when the new drug L-dopa was administered to them. Sacks describes them as “dormant volcanoes” whose lives were suddenly transformed when they were “awakened” with L-dopa. Awakenings presents a detailed clinical account of these patients as they emerged from their isolation and tried to recover their lives. Sacks writes of the tremendous excitement at seeing these lives suddenly redeemed through these miraculous awakenings. Unfortunately, the recoveries experienced by Sacks’s patients were often only temporary and were followed by such bizarre neurological reactions that their medication had to be curtailed. The text of Awakenings is divided into three sections: “Introduction,” “Awakenings,” and “Perspectives.” Sacks begins with a detailed discussion of Parkinsonism, discusses the individual case...
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