Sacks, Oliver 1933–

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Sacks, Oliver 1933–

(Oliver Wolf Sacks)

PERSONAL: Born July 9, 1933, in London, England; immigrated to the United States, 1960; British citizen; son of Samuel (a physician) and Muriel Elsie (a physician; maiden name, Landau) Sacks. Education: Queen's College, Oxford, B.A., 1954, M.A., B.M., and B.Ch., all 1958; residencies at University of California, San Francisco and University of California, Los Angeles, 1961–65. Hobbies and other interests: Swimming, scuba diving, cycling, mountaineering.

ADDRESSES: Office—2 Horatio Street, Apt. 3G, New York, NY 10014-1638. Agent—The Wylie Agency, 250 West 57th St., New York, NY 10107.

CAREER: Middlesex Hospital, London, England, intern in medicine, surgery, and neurology, 1958–60; Mt. Zion Hospital, San Francisco, CA, rotating intern, 1961–62; University of California, Los Angeles, resident in neurology, 1962–65; Yeshiva University, Albert Einstein College of Medicine, Bronx, NY, fellow in neurochemistry and neuropathology, 1965–66, instructor, 1966–75, assistant professor, 1975–78, associate professor, 1978–85, clinical professor of neurology, 1985; Beth Abraham Hospital, Bronx, staff neurologist, 1966–. University of California, Santa Cruz, Cowell College, visiting professor, 1987. Consultant neurologist at Bronx Psychiatric Center, 1966–1991, and at Little Sisters of the Poor, New York City; adjunct Professor of Psychiatry, New York University Medical Center, 1992–.

MEMBER: American Academy of Neurology (fellow), American Neurological Association, American Academy of Arts and Letters, New York State Medical Society, New York Institute for the Humanities, Alpha Omega Alpha, British Pteridological Society.

AWARDS, HONORS: Hawthornden Prize, 1974, for Awakenings; Oskar Pfister Award, American Psychiatric Association, 1988; Guggenheim fellowship, 1989; Harold D. Vursell Memorial Award, American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters, 1989; Guggenheim fellowship, 1989; Odd Fellows book award, 1991; D.H. L., Georgetown University, 1990, and College of Staten Island, City University of New York, 1991; honorary D.S., Tufts University and New York Medical College, both 1991; Scriptor Award, University of Southern California, 1991; Professional Support Award, National Headache Foundation, 1991; presidential citation, American Academy of Neurology, 1991; presidential award, American Neurological Association, 1991; Prix Psyche, 1991; honorary D.M.S., Medical College of Pennsylvania, 1992; honorary D.S., Bard College, 1992; George S. Polk Award for magazine reporting, 1994; Esquire/Apple/Waterstone's Book of the Year Award, 1995; Mainichi Publishing Culture Award, 1996.


Migraine, University of California Press (Berkeley, CA), 1970, revised and enlarged edition, Vintage (New York, NY), 1992.

Awakenings, Duckworth (London, England), 1973, Doubleday (New York, NY), 1974, published with a new foreword by the author, Summit Books (New York, NY), 1987.

A Leg to Stand On, Summit Books (New York, NY), 1984, revised edition, Touchstone (New York, NY), 1992.

The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat, and Other Clinical Tales, Duckworth (London, England), 1985, Summit Books (New York, NY), 1986.

Seeing Voices: A Journey into the World of the Deaf, University of California Press (Berkeley, CA), 1989, new revised edition, Picador (London, England), 1991.

An Anthropologist on Mars: Seven Paradoxical Tales, Knopf (New York, NY), 1995.

The Island of the Colorblind; and Cycad Island, Knopf (New York, NY), 1997.

Uncle Tungsten: Memories of a Chemical Boyhood, Knopf (New York, NY), 2001.

Vintage Sacks, Vintage (New York, NY), 2001.

Oaxaca Journal, National Geographic (Washington, DC), 2002.

Contributor to books, including Hidden Histories of Science, edited by Robert B. Silvers, New York Review of Books, 1996; and Wim Kayzer, A Glorious Accident: Understanding Our Place in the Cosmic Puzzle, W.H. Freeman (New York, NY), 1997. Contributor to New York Review of Books, New Yorker, Discover, New York Times, and other periodicals and various journals.

ADAPTATIONS: Harold Pinter's play A Kind of Alaska is based on one of the case histories from Awakenings; Awakenings was adapted into a movie with the same title, starring Robin Williams and Robert De Niro, and directed by Penny Marshall, 1990; the title case study from The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat, and Other Clinical Tales was adapted into an opera with the same title by Michael Nyman and into the play The Man Who … by Peter Brook; a case history from An Anthropologist on Mars: Seven Paradoxical Tales served as inspiration for the play Molly Sweeney by Brian Friel, and the 1999 movie At First Sight.

SIDELIGHTS: Oliver Sacks, among the best-known and most highly respected neurologists working in the United States, made a name for himself among his peers in the field of neurology with his work with post-encephalitic patients in a hospitals in the Bronx, New York, during the late 1960s. He gained a wider audience with the publication of The Man Who Mistook his Wife for a Hat in 1985. Sacks' autobiography, Uncle Tungsten: Memories of a Chemical Boyhood, reveals a great deal about the family traditions that formed the physician/author's passion for science in its many forms. As John Gross wrote in the Spectator, "There were broader scientific traditions in the family" and "as his own interest in science flowered he could rely on the encouragement of a formidable family support system." Sack's Uncle Dave, the most important of these inventors, ran a firm that made light bulbs with filaments of tungsten wire. "Sacks has consistently offered us fascinating, intense, thoughtful chronicles of the uncanny worlds of his neurological patients—a kind of Ripley's Believe It or Not for the intellectual and artistic set," as Wendy Lesser observed in the New York Times Book Review. "In books like Awakenings, An Anthropologist on Mars, and The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat he has explored the terrain where physical and mental ailments blur into spiritual quandaries, moral inquiries and exemplary tales about the infinite variety and adaptability of the human organism. Oliver Sacks has become our modern master of the case study, an artistic form whose antecedents lie in the scientific work of practitioners like A.R. Luria and Sigmund Freud." Sacks's work has also reached other audiences through adaptations for the stage and screen. Three of his case histories have been made into plays, one into an opera, and Awakenings was the subject of a major motion picture starring Robin Williams and Robert De Niro.

In his book Migraine, first published in 1970 and later updated and enlarged for publication in 1985 and 1992, Sacks examines a condition known to mankind for thousands of years. As Sacks points out, though it is a common affliction, the migraine is little understood, its symptoms varying widely from one person to the next. Headache is but one of many symptoms that may include convulsions, vomiting, depression, and visual hallucinations. Drawing upon his observation of numerous patients, Sacks focuses not on cures but on an explanation of the function migraine serves for its human sufferers and an insistence on treating an illness in the contest of an individual's whole life.

Migraine attracted a varied readership. Writing in the New York Times, Michiko Kakutani found that Sacks' "commentary is so erudite, so gracefully written, that even those people fortunate enough to never have had a migraine in their lives should find it equally compelling." Israel Rosenfield maintained in the New York Times Review of Books that the work "should be read as much for its brilliant insights into the nature of our mental functioning as for its discussion of migraine."

Upon his arrival at Beth Abraham Hospital in the late 1960s, Sacks discovered a group of patients suffering from a range of debilitating symptoms, the worst of which was a "sleep" so deep the sufferer was beyond arousal. The patients, he learned, were survivors of a sleeping sickness epidemic that had occurred between 1916 and 1927. In his second book, Awakenings, Sacks tells of his attempts to help this group. Recognizing the similarities between the symptoms exhibited by his patients and those of sufferers of Parkinson's disease, Sacks decided to begin administering L-dopa, a drug proven effective in treating Parkinson's disease. L-dopa initially produced dramatic results; patients out of touch with the world for over four decades suddenly emerged from their sleep. Sacks discovered, however, that the drug was not a miracle cure. Side-effects and the shock of waking an unchanged person in a changed world proved too much for some in the group. Some others withdrew into trance-like states; others succeeded, but only by achieving a balance between the illness and the cure, the past and the present.

Sacks's portrayal of the complexities of this episode earned him considerable praise from readers of Awakenings. "Well versed in poetry and metaphysics, [Sacks] writes from the great tradition of Sir Thomas Browne," noted Newsweek reviewer Peter S. Prescott, "probing through medicine and his own observations of fear, suffering and total disability toward an investigation of what it means not only to be, but to become a person." "Some would attribute this achievement to narrative skill, others to clinical insight," commented Gerald Weissman in the Washington Post; "I would rather call this feat of empathy a work of art."

A Leg to Stand On is a doctor's memoir of his own experience as a patient. As Jerome Bruner explained in the New York Review of Books, Sacks's book "is about a horribly injured leg, his own, what he thought and learned while living through the terrors and raptures of recovering its function." In 1976 while mountaineering in Scandinavia, Sacks fell and twisted his left knee. Although surgery repaired the physical damage—torn ligaments and tendons—the leg remained immobile. Sacks found he had lost his inner sense of the leg; it seemed to him detached and alien, not his own. His inability to recover disturbed him, and the surgeon's dismissal of his concerns only heightened his anxiety.

In his bestselling collection of case histories titled The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat, "Sacks tells some two dozen stories about people who are also patients, and who manifest strange and striking peculiarities of perception, emotion, language, thought, memory or action," observed John C. Marshall in the New York Times Book Review. "And he recounts these histories with the lucidity and power of a short-story writer." One of the case histories Sacks presents is that of an instructor of music who suffers from a visual disorder. While able to see the component parts of objects, he is unable to perceive the whole they compose. Leaving Sacks's office after a visit, this patient turns to grab his hat and instead grabs his wife's face. Another history features two autistic twins unable to add or subtract but capable of determining the day of the week for any date past or present and of calculating twenty-digit prime numbers.

"Blessed with deep reserves of compassion and a metaphysical turn of mind," commented Kakutani, "Sacks writes of these patients not as scientific curiosities but as individuals, whose dilemmas—moral and spiritual, as well as psychological—are made as completely real as those of characters in a novel."

As it demonstrates the variety of abnormal conditions that can arise from damage to the brain, The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat also touches larger themes. Nation contributor Brina Caplan was impressed by the book's portrayal of "men and women [who] struggle individually with a common problem: how to reconcile being both a faulty mechanism and a thematic, complex and enduring self." As Walter Clemmons suggested in Newsweek, "Sacks's humane essays on these strange cases are deeply stirring, because each of them touches on our own fragile 'normal' identities and taken-forgranted abilities of memory, attention, and concentration."

Seeing Voices: A Journey into the World of the Deaf is a departure from Sacks's case studies of neurological disorders. Yet, as in his other works, in this exploration of deafness and the deaf Sacks continues to challenge readers' assumptions of what is normal. As Simon J. Carmel explained in Natural History, "When Sacks started to read books on the deaf, he was so enraptured that he began a journey into their silent world." The result is a book in three parts. In the first part, Sacks outlines the history of the deaf. As he points out, prior to the mid-1700s, those who were born deaf were generally considered uneducable and were neglected. Then the French Abbe Charles-Michel de l'Epée shattered these assumptions. He learned the sign language of some of the deaf in Paris and adapted it to teach the deaf to read. His school for the deaf, which opened in 1755, trained teachers who spread deaf education throughout Europe and America. During the years since, two approaches to deaf education have persisted. The focus of education in oralist schools is on teaching deaf students to speak, lip read, and to use signed English. The focus of Sign schools—those using American Sign Language, or ASL—is on helping deaf students to learn Sign as a native language and use it to learn other things. The remaining two parts of the book, noted Prescott, are "an examination (and celebration) of the complexity and richness of Sign, the true language of the deaf; and an account of [the March 1988] uprising at Gallaudet University, which for the first time placed a deaf president in charge."

Even with such reservations like those expressed by Paul West that Sacks overuses footnotes, Seeing Voices challenges the assumptions of the hearing. As West puts it in the New York Times Book Review, "Sacks, whose heart is in the right place, wants the deaf to have all they need, but most of all, their own natural and private language. He brings afresh to our attention a problem that is never easily going to be solved." Carmel concluded, "Above all, I must admit that Sacks's book is most informative and stimulating, and I must praise his intense research and crystal-clear understanding of the deaf world. So I strongly recommend that his book be read by those individuals who want a better understanding of the cultural, educational, historical, linguistic, psychological, and sociological discipline of deafness."

Sacks returns to his examination of how people cope with neurological disorders in An Anthropologist on Mars: Seven Paradoxical Tales. In these seven case histories Sacks again probes what it means to be normal through the lives of people who seem anything but normal. He includes the story of a painter who has lost the ability to see anything but black and white, a surgeon with Tourette's syndrome, an autistic boy who has an uncanny gift for drawing, an autistic Ph.D. who is the world's greatest authority on cattle behavior, and a man who has regained his eyesight after decades of blindness. With each, Sacks shows the balance of science and humanity that characterizes all of his writing. Ethan Canin observed this quality in the Washington Post Book World: "Sacks possesses the physician's love for classification and logical dissection, but once again we see that he is also blessed with the humanist's wonder at character and grace, at the ineffable sadness and wondrous joy of art." In Lesser's opinion, An Anthropologist on Mars is "Sacks's best book to date because it very self-consciously explores both the physician's and the patients' peculiar ways of thinking."

In The Island of the Colorblind and Cycad Island, Sacks continues his skillful blend of clinical expertise and storytelling, and explores the inner realm of people on Pingelap, a remote Micronesian island, where one in every twelve people is born with total hereditary colorblindness. At first, Sacks noted, "I had vision, only half fantastic, of an entire achromatopic culture with its own singular tastes, arts, cooking, and clothing…. Would they, perhaps, lacking any sense of something missing, have a world no less dense and vibrant than our own?"

Traveling with Dr. Knut Nordby, a colorblind Norwegian scientist, Sacks finds that the islanders' culture is not as affected by colorblindness as he had believed, perhaps because most islanders have normal vision. However, the affected islanders become fascinated by Dr. Nordby, who reassures them that they are not alone in the world. As D.M. Thomas suggested in the New York Times Book Review, the book is "an ordinary—if well-written—travel essay," but he also noted that one of Sacks's gifts as a writer is "the ability to show how patients who are truly isolated and insulated by a disease can still retain their humanity, their dignity."

"Cycad Island," the second essay in the book, is an exploration of a mysterious disease on Guam, a progressive paralysis with a mysterious cause that has not affected islanders born after the 1950s. One suspect was the cycad tree; in the past, the islanders used its seeds, which are toxic, for food. The book becomes a meditation on the palmlike tree, which has fascinated Sacks since his childhood, when it represented a distant realm of peace and the Eden of his dreams. Guam, however, is no Eden, but an ecological disaster, ruined by nuclear testing, deforestation, and other predations from the outside world. Christopher Lehmann-Haupt, in the New York Times Book Review, commented that Sacks's "human inquisitiveness lends a philosophical perspective to every threatening change…. And the way his subjects accept their fate redeems his story from gloom, even lending it a certain gaiety."

In addition to being compelling reading, Sacks's writing also serves a larger purpose. "What he's arguing for is a set of neglected values: empathetic, emotional, individual, storylike," noted Caplan. "To ignore those values, he suggests, means constructing a science of cold, rigid design." As Paul Baumann in Commonweal summed it up, "Sacks's larger ambition is to develop what he calls an 'existential neurology' or 'romantic science' that will shed the rigid computational paradigms of traditional neurology and open itself up to the dynamic 'powers' of the mind."



Contemporary Literary Criticism, Volume 67, Thomson Gale (Detroit, MI), 1992, pp. 284-309.


Boston Globe, December 29, 1985, p. A13; March 24, 1986, p. 23; August 27, 1989, p. 87; November 12, 1989, p. M8; January 25, 1991, p. 29.

Chicago Tribune, August 20, 1989, sec. 14, p. 5; November 3, 1989, sec. 5, p. 1.

Commonweal, March 28, 1986; February 9, 1990, p. 88.

Globe and Mail (Toronto, Ontario, Canada), February 21, 1987.

Interview, October, 1989, p. 24.

Journal of the American Medical Association, July 8, 1988, p. 273; February 9, 1994, p. 478.

Library Journal, March 1, 1996, p. 48; January, 1997, p. 140; February 15, 1997, p. 176.

Los Angeles Times, March 18, 1986, p. 6; September 24, 1989, p. B7.

Los Angeles Times Book Review, March 23, 1986; September 6, 1987, p. 14; February 23, 1997, p. 4.

Nation, February 22, 1986, Brina Caplan review of The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat.

Natural History, November, 1989, pp. 88-92, 94-95.

Newsweek, July 15, 1974; August 20, 1984; December 30, 1985; March 2, 1986; March 13, 1986; March 27, 1986; October 2, 1989, p. 72.

New York Review of Books, September 27, 1984; March 2, 1986; March 13, 1986; March 27, 1986; January 29, 1987, p. 39; March 28, 1991, p. 65; March 6, 1997, p. 15.

New York Times, May 24, 1984; June 19, 1985; January 25, 1986; September 30, 1989, p. A14; February 7, 1995, pp. C13, C18; February 14, 1995, p. C19; January 9, 1997, p. C18.

New York Times Book Review, July 7, 1985, Michiko Kakutani, review of Migraine; March 2, 1986, John C. Marshall review of The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat; October 8, 1989, pp. 17-18; February 19, 1995, p. 1; December 3, 1995, p. 80; January 19, 1997, p. 7.

People, March 17, 1986; February 11, 1991, p. 91.

Publishers Weekly, January 1, 1996, p. 69; November 25, 1996, p. 63; December 2, 1996, p. 31.

Spectator, December 24, 2001, p. 30.

Time, March 20, 1995, pp. 68-70.

Times Literary Supplement, December 14, 1973; June 22, 1984; February 7, 1986.

Wall Street Journal, June 17, 1986, p. 26.

Washington Post, October 30, 1987; January 13, 1991, pp. F1, F6.

Washington Post Book World, August 26, 1984; February 16, 1986; September 10, 1989, p. 1; March 5, 1995, p. 2.

Yale Review, winter, 1988, p. 172.