Oliver Sacks Essay - Critical Essays

Sacks, Oliver


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.

Biographical Information

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.

Major Works

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.

Critical Reception

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.

Principal Works

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


John B. Christiansen (review date November 1990)

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...

(The entire section is 656 words.)

John Wiltshire (essay date 1991)

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...

(The entire section is 8188 words.)

Judith Weinraub (essay date 13 January 1991)

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...

(The entire section is 2792 words.)

Murdo William McRae (essay date 1993)

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...

(The entire section is 5682 words.)

Anne Hunsaker Hawkins (essay date spring 1993)

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.]


“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...

(The entire section is 6924 words.)

Rodger Beehler (essay date July 1993)

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



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Seymour Diamond (review date 9 February 1994)

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,...

(The entire section is 734 words.)

Marek Kohn (review date 17 February 1995)

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 entire section is 769 words.)

Joe Chidley (essay date 13 March 1995)

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...

(The entire section is 1844 words.)

William Hunter (essay date spring 1995)

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...

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Oliver Sacks and David Lazar (interview date 1995)

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...

(The entire section is 3353 words.)

Jared Diamond (essay date 6 March 1997)

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...

(The entire section is 5525 words.)

David Hanlon (review date spring 1999)

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...

(The entire section is 1430 words.)

Leonard Cassuto (essay date June 2000)

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;...

(The entire section is 2904 words.)

Oliver Sacks and Tracy Cochran (interview date 1 October 2001)

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...

(The entire section is 2005 words.)

M. F. Perutz (essay date 1 November 2001)

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...

(The entire section is 4283 words.)

Mary Christ (essay date November-December 2001)

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...

(The entire section is 804 words.)

John Gross (review date 29 December 2001)

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...

(The entire section is 972 words.)

Leo P. Kadanoff (review date 18 January 2002)

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....

(The entire section is 785 words.)

Further Reading


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....

(The entire section is 433 words.)