Introduction

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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.