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Sacks, Oliver

Oliver Sacks

Neurologist Oliver Sacks (born 1933) told Psychology Today, "It is the remarkable which captures my attention." In a series of bestselling books drawn from his own remarkable life and clinical career, Sacks has been an explorer of unfamiliar territory in the human brain.

Sacks's work has been motivated not by an obsession with the bizarre but by a sense of wonder and respect at how human beings react and adapt to serious illness. A generalist and a humanist in a profession that inclines toward specialization, Sacks has seen his work inspire a hit film, Awakenings, a play, and even an opera. He has become one of the most celebrated and respected science writers in the United States.

Sent to Country School During War

Sacks was born in London, England, on July 9, 1933. His parents were both doctors, and they guided him from the start toward the medical profession. They were very different in personality; Sacks's father was fascinated by literature and human behavior, while his mother, who once (when he was a teenager) made him dissect the leg of a corpse of a young woman his own age, was mechanistically and mechanically inclined. "Her love of structure extended in all directions," Sacks wrote in his memoir Uncle Tungsten. She enjoyed tinkering with the family's grandfather clock, and "there was nothing she liked more," Sacks wrote, "than mending a leaky faucet or a toilet, and the services of outside plumbers were usually not required." Sacks's childhood was disrupted by Germany's air attacks against Britain during World War II. To get him and his brother Michael out of London during the worst of the bombing, their parents enrolled them in a boarding school, Braefield, in the English Midlands.

The headmaster there, Sacks wrote in Uncle Tungsten, "seemed to have become unhinged by his own power." Sacks and his brother were physically and psychologically abused. The food packages their parents sent were stolen, and they were fed vegetables normally meant for cattle. The experience sensitized Sacks to the plight of individuals trapped in situations caused by unfortunate circumstances, but it also did more. Over four years at the school, with only occasional (and bomb-riddled) visits to London, Sacks's brother Michael began to display psychotic symptoms. Yet what affected his brother was not exactly mental illness. "This is something I don't go into [in the new book]," Sacks told Publishers Weekly when Uncle Tungsten was published, "but when my brother Michael had his breakdown and became psychotic, one of the things he said was, don't call this a disease. It is my struggle, my world, my attempt to find meaning."

After the war, Sacks made his own attempt to find meaning, immersing himself in all kinds of scientific subjects. Chemistry was a special favorite, and the Uncle Tungsten described in his book stimulated his interest. He found company among several like-minded friends. "Life is not all electrostatics," one friend, Jonathan Miller, teased him while he was in a physics phase (as he recalled to Erica E. Goode of U.S. News & World Report). But Sacks looked up from his book and said, "Yes it is." Sacks and two of his friends went to visit science writer Julian Huxley in London. "I think the great man was both amused and impressed by such undersized, ink-stained, and sort of grim children," Sacks told Goode.

Finding his way back to the family profession, Sacks graduated from Queen's College, Oxford, in 1954 and went on for a series of medical degrees between 1954 and 1958. In 1960 he moved to the United States after first hitchhiking around Canada and working as a firefighter during the wild-fire season in British Columbia, Canada. He told Sandee Brawarsky of The Lancet that he had a "hunger for a new world. I felt, probably unfairly, that England was small and crowded and conservative, and that I might be able to make more of a life here in the states, which I imagined to be more spacious, in every way. I first went to California [in 1961] and somehow the physical spaciousness seemed to take on a moral and intellectual spaciousness as well."

Joined Biker Gang

Sacks did an internship at Mount Zion Hospital in San Francisco in 1961 and 1962, moving on to a residency in neurology at the University of California at Los Angeles from 1962 until 1965. The formerly bookish young doctor took to the athletic and outdoorsy aspects of the California lifestyle, winning a weightlifting championship and spending time with the Hell's Angels motorcycle gang. An avid cyclist, he sometimes rode from UCLA to the Grand Canyon on weekends. Even then, before American medicine had begun to take on qualities of an industrial assembly line, Sacks was noted for his one-on-one approach to patient care. He once smuggled a dying multiple sclerosis patient out of the hospital for a ride on the back of his motorcycle.

Sacks's unconventional ways did not always endear him to UCLA's medical faculty. When one teacher said (as he recalled to Psychology Today), "Sacks, I'm worried about you. You don't have any position," Sacks retorted, "Oh, yes I do…. I have a position in the heart of medicine." The remark was prophetic enough, but Sacks made one last stab at becoming a research scientist. In 1965 he accepted a fellowship at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine at Yeshiva University in the New York City borough of the Bronx, becoming a researcher in neurochemistry and neuropathology. After several incidents of clumsiness that would have fascinated psychopathologists of everyday life, including one in which he dropped some hamburger into an expensive centrifuge, he accepted his medical destiny and became a staff neurologist Beth Abraham Hospital in the Bronx. He remained in the same position four decades later, but he also continued his association with the Albert Einstein College of Medicine, serving as an instructor there from 1966 until 1975, and rising to assistant professor (1975–78), associate professor (1978–85), and clinical professor of neurology (from 1985 forward).

At Beth Abraham, Sacks soon encountered the first of the unusual patients who populated his books. But at first he dealt with sufferers of one of the most common neurological conditions: migraine headaches. He became fascinated by the condition, which has been well documented back to ancient times and seems to show up frequently among unusually creative figures. A reflexive writer and journal keeper since childhood—he estimated that he has written tens of millions of words—Sacks wrote a book about the migraine phenomenon in 1967. A superior warned him that he had nowhere near enough stature to publish a medical book, locked up the manuscript, and threatened his employment, but he persisted. Migraine gained positive reviews and went through several editions, remaining in print in the early 2000s.

Sacks was not against the use of drugs to treat neurological conditions, as his next book would show. But he tried to cultivate a holistic approach, evaluating patients individually and determining how their illnesses interacted with their lives in general. "In my early book, Migraine, I talk about all sorts of interventions," he pointed out to Psychology Today. "But I also say that just to throw down a medication and then continue rushing around may, in a sense, defeat the purpose, because the migraine is partly saying, 'Hey, stop, take it easy.'"

"Awakened" Patients

At Beth Abraham, Sacks encountered a group of 80 patients who had been in a lethargic trance for decades, not moving or speaking, and interacting with the outside world only in very limited ways. They suffered from a form of encephalitis commonly known as sleeping sickness. Sacks hypothesized that they might be helped by L-dopa, a new drug given to patients suffering from Parkinson's disease. The dosages of L-dopa that he administered in 1969 had seemingly miraculous results; the patients came to life and began to speak and move normally. But the treatment was far from a complete success; the drug had numerous side effects that caused one patient to dub it "hell-dopa." Some patients suffered hallucinations; others were disoriented by the new, modern world in which they found themselves. Some did go on to lead what Sacks on his website called "long and relatively rewarding lives."

The compulsive diarist Sacks filled notebooks with observations on his treatment, but he found medical journals uninterested in the articles he wrote about his experiences. So he compiled his observations into a book, Awakenings, which was published in 1973 and became a bestseller. Awakenings was made into a play, A Kind of Alaska, by Harold Pinter, and into the film Awakenings (1990), starring Robin Williams as a doctor clearly based on Sacks. The book made Sacks a well-known author, and he found a ready clientele among magazine editors for case studies he wrote about other patients he encountered. Many of these (the New Yorker was a common publication forum for Sacks) served as material for his later books.

In Sacks's next book, however, he was the patient, not the doctor. In 1976 he suffered a serious injury to his left leg in a mountain climbing accident in Scandinavia. Surgeons repaired the physical damage, but Sacks found that he still could not move his leg—it did not seem to be part of his own body. A Leg to Stand On (1984) recounted his recovery in detail. One form of therapy that helped was swimming. "I do a certain amount of my writing underwater,…" Sacks told The Writer. While working on A Leg to Stand On, he said, "I would swim for half an hour, come out dripping, and scribble. I remember sending my editor a water-stained manuscript. He said, 'No one has sent me a handwritten manuscript for 30 years, let alone a water-stained one." Even away from the pool, the most complicated word-processing technology Sacks has used is a typewriter.

Sacks published another of his most famous books in 1985; The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat, this was a compilation of collected case studies of patients with perceptual difficulties arising from a variety of causes. The title study, which was the basis for an opera by composer Michael Nyman, concerned a music instructor who could not grasp objects as wholes and confused his wife's face for his hat, which he had hung on a nearby rack. Sacks became interested in the phenomenon of autism, which causes young people severe difficulties in social interaction but is sometimes accompanied by spectacular mental powers of a specialized nature. In both The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat and a similar later book, An Anthropologist on Mars (1995), Sacks included sketches of so-called autistic savants.

Continuing to explore unfamiliar issues of human perception and mental functioning as the spirit moved him—he claimed on his website that his writing was "unanticipatable, unplanned, awaiting inspiration, nucleation"—Sacks wrote books about the culture of the deaf (Seeing Voices: A Journey into the World of the Deaf, 1989), and about a Pacific Ocean island where colorblindness was common (The Island of the Colorblind; and Cycad Island, (1997). His Oaxaca Journal (2002) grew from his interest in ferns, describing a naturalists' expedition to that Mexican region. Some scientists considered Sacks a pop neurologist, but he received a high scientific honor when he was made an honorary fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Letters and of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. His books have been translated into 22 languages, and the New York Times, according to his website, has proclaimed him "the poet laureate of medicine."


Sacks, Oliver, Uncle Tungsten: Memories of a Chemical Boyhood, Knopf, 2001.


Book, November-December 2001.

Economist (US), March 15, 1997.

Lancet, October 11, 1997.

Psychology Today, February 1986; May-June 1995.

Publishers Weekly, October 1, 2001.

U.S. News & World Report, January 21, 1991.

Writer, April 2002.


Oliver Sacks: author. neurologist, "Biography," (January 11, 2006).

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Sacks, Oliver Wolf

Oliver Wolf Sacks, 1933–, British neurologist and author, b. London, educated at Oxford. In 1960 he moved to the United States, where he continued his medical training. He began an association with Albert Einstein College of Medicine in New York City in 1965, later becoming a professor of neurology there. In 2007 he became a professor of clinical neurology and clinical psychology at Columbia's College of Physicians and Surgeons. Since 2012 he has been a professor of neurology at the New York University School of Medicine. He also works in area psychiatric centers and nursing homes. A creative medical thinker, Sacks is known for an approach to medicine that humanizes the patient and is concerned with the psychological, moral, and spiritual elements of illness and treatment. His books, which include Awakenings (1973), The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat (1985), An Anthropologist on Mars (1995), The Island of the Colorblind (1997), Musicophilia (2007), The Mind's Eye (2010), and Hallucinations (2012), describe case histories of people with neurological and perceptual disorders, and exhibit a fascination with the creativity of the mind as it copes with such disabilities.

See his memoir of his boyhood, Uncle Tungsten (2001) and his autobiography, On the Move (2015).

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