Sacks, Oliver 1933-
SACKS, Oliver 1933-
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.
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, NY; adjunct Professor of Psychiatry, New York University Medical Center, 1992–. Host of four-part PBS television series, Oliver Sacks: The Mind Traveller, 1998.
MEMBER: American Academy of Neurology (fellow), American Neurological Association, American Academy of Arts & 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; Lewis Thomas Prize, Rockefeller University, 2002.
Migraine, University of California Press (Berkeley, CA), 1970, new and abridged edition, 1973, published as Migraine: Understanding a Common Disorder, 1985, revised and expanded edition published as Migraine, 1992, new revised and expanded edition, Vintage Books (New York, NY), 1999.
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.
(Contributor) Hidden Histories of Science, edited by Robert B. Silvers, New York Review of Books (New York, NY), 1996.
(Contributor) Wim Kayzer, A Glorious Accident: Understanding Our Place in the Cosmic Puzzle, W. H. Freeman (New York, NY), 1997.
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.
Oaxaca Journal, National Geographic (Washington, DC), 2002.
(Editor) The Best American Science Writing 2003, Ecco (New York, NY), 2003.
Vintage Sacks, Vintage (New York, NY), 2004.
Contributor to New York Review of Books, New Yorker, Discover, New York Times, and to various journals.
ADAPTATIONS: Harold Pinter' s play A Kind of Alaska was 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, 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 is among the best-known and most highly respected neurologists in the United States, and he has also made a considerable reputation for himself as an author. He first established himself as an innovator in the field of neurology during the late 1960s, while working with post-encephalitic patients hospitalized in New York City. His experiences there led to his book Awakenings, which was eventually adapted as a major motion picture. Sacks gained a still-wider audience with later books related to neurology and other scientific subjects, including The Man Who Mistook his Wife for a Hat, Seeing Voices: A Journey into the World of the Deaf, and Uncle Tungsten: Memories of a Chemical Boyhood. "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," Wendy Lesser observed in the New York Times Book Review. "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."
In his book Migraine, Sacks examines a condition known to mankind for thousands of years. As Sacks points out, migraine is little understood, though it is a common affliction. Its symptoms vary widely from one person to the next; headache is but one manifestation, while others 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 context of an individual's whole life. After he completed the manuscript, he was told by a renowned colleague that he should not publish it, and in fact the manuscript was taken from him and locked away. Determined not to be silenced, Sacks gave himself the severe mandate that if he had not reconstructed his text within ten days, he would commit suicide. After nearly nine days of arduous work, he finished his manuscript and was able to send it to the publishers. The result was a landmark work that has gone through many revisions and reprintings, attracting a widely varied readership. Writing in the New York Times, Michiko Kakutani remarked that "his commentary is so erudite, so grace-fully written, that even those people fortunate enough to never have had a migraine in their lives should find it equally compelling."
When Sacks went to work at the Beth Abraham Hospital in the late 1960s, he 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. 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 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," affirmed 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 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 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."
In addition to demonstrating 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 taken 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-for-granted abilities of memory, attention and concentration."
Seeing Voices 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'Epee 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." Seeing Voices challenges the assumptions of the hearing. As West put 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." And Carmel (himself deaf, an anthropologist of deaf folklore and culture) 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 testified to 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 color-blindness 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. It 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 Lehman-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 the book Oaxaca Journal, Sacks chronicled a tenday trip he took to Oaxaca, Mexico in order to study ferns, in the company of about thirty other people with a similar interest. Leaving cold, wintry New York for sunny Mexico, Sacks soon found that the rich history and vibrant life of the Oaxaca region was almost overwhelming to him. Besides enjoying the wealth of ferns, Sacks found that he formed a bond with his fellow travelers. "I think I'm probably a rather isolated person in a way, and it's very unusual for me to have this sort of communal bonding," he told Carl T. Hall in an interview for the San Francisco Chronicle. "But I was also bowled over by the Mexican experience, in so many ways, the poverty and humor and color and dignity of the people. All the complexities of current Mexican life, from what I saw of it, a sense of this double culture and the origins of a whole civilization and all sorts of things which we have now appropriated and are an integral part of our own life. Tobacco, chocolate, potatoes—we never think where these things came from. So I do feel a different person, and I hope some of my readers, though not all of them at once, will go and have a similar experience." Hall remarked, "A certain musicality and easy rhythm of language pulls the reader along, even through some rather overgrown thickets about the shared botanical enthusiasms of the group. There are some funny scenes, too."
Sacks turned his keen insight onto his own life in a memoir of his unusual life, titled Uncle Tungsten: Memories of a Chemical Boyhood. Sacks's parents were both physicians, and there were many other doctors and scientists in his family. Thus his own early interest in science was not only encouraged, but expected. Sent away to boarding school during World War II to escape the hazards of German bombs falling on London, Sacks and his brother were beaten daily by a sadistic headmaster, an experience that marked both of them forever. His parents expected him to become a physician, with his mother going so far as to bring home the cadaver of a young girl and overseeing his dissection of it. Sacks reacted by becoming absorbed in chemistry instead. He felt that the order of the periodic table helped him regain a sense of stability lost during some of his traumatic earlier experiences. The book details his precocious and sometimes funny experiments and observations. A Library Journal reviewer concluded that Uncle Tungsten is "much more than just the lab notes of a junior chemist, though. It is also about growing up Jewish and coming of age in London during the wartime years. The passion that Sacks felt for learning permeated every aspect of his young life, and it comes through vividly in his adult prose." Colin Martin also recommended the book, stating in his Lancet review, "Oliver Sacks' delightful memoir interweaves the history of chemistry with his personal and family histories. Having humanised medicine in earlier books, he has now worked his magic on chemistry." A Publishers Weekly writer concluded: "For Sacks, the onset of puberty coincided with his discovery of biology, his departure from his childhood love of chemistry and, at age 14, a new understanding that he would become a doctor. Many readers and patients are happy with that decision."
BIOGRAPHICAL AND CRITICAL SOURCES:
Contemporary Literary Criticism, Volume 67, Gale (Detroit, MI), 1992, pp. 284-309.
Book, November-December, 2001, review of Uncle Tungsten: Memories of a Chemical Boyhood, p. 48.
Booklist, September 1, 2001, review of Uncle Tungsten, p. 2; January 1, 2002, review of Uncle Tungsten, p. 758; February 15, 2002, Ray Olson, review of Oaxaca Journal, p. 980; September 1, 2003, Gilbert Taylor, review of The Best American Science Writing 2003, p. 34.
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.
Business Week, November 26, 2001, review of Uncle Tungsten, p. 20E6.
Chemistry and Industry, July 15, 2002, Martyn Berry, review of Uncle Tungsten, p. 22.
Chicago Tribune, August 20, 1989, section 14, p. 5; November 3, 1989, section 5, p. 1.
Commonweal, March 28, 1986; February 9, 1990, p. 88.
Contemporary Pacific, spring, 1999, David Hanlon, review of The Island of the Colorblind; and, Cycad Island, p. 270.
Discover, December, 1997, review of The Island of the Colorblind, p. 73.
Financial Times, December 7, 2002, "Oliver Sacks," p. 3.
Globe and Mail (Toronto, Ontario, Canada), February 21, 1987.
Interview, October, 1989, p. 24.
JAMA: The Journal of the American Medical Association, July 8, 1988, p. 273; February 9, 1994, p. 478.
Kirkus Reviews, July 1, 2003, review of The Best American Science Writing 2003, p. 900.
Kliatt, July, 2003, review of Uncle Tungsten, p. 6.
Lancet, October 11, 1997, Sandee Brawarsky, interview with Oliver Sacks, p. 1092; November 30, 2002, Colin Martin, review of Uncle Tungsten, p. 1795.
Library Journal, March 1, 1996, p. 48; January, 1997, p. 140; February 15, 1997, p. 176; November 1, 2001, Gregg Sapp, review of Uncle Tungsten, p. 130.
Los Angeles Times, March 18, 1986, p. V1; September 24, 1989, p. B7.
Los Angeles Times Book Review, March 23, 1986; September 6, 1987, p. 14; February 23, 1997, p. 4.
Maclean's, April 28, 1997, Joe Chidley, review of The Island of the Colorblind, p. 62.
Nation, February 22, 1986.
Natural History, November, 1989, pp. 88-92, 94-95.
New Scientist, November 24, 2001, Roger Bridgman, review of Uncle Tungsten, p. 42; April 6, 2002, Anil Ananthaswamy, review of The Island of the Color Blind, p. 15.
News Journal (Wilmington, DE), November 18, 2001, Leo Irwin, review of Uncle Tungsten, p. H6.
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; March 2, 1986; October 8, 1989, pp. 17-18; February 19, 1995, p. 1; December 3, 1995, p. 80; January 19, 1997, p. 7; November 11, 2001, review of Uncle Tungsten, p. 30; November 18, 2001, review of Uncle Tungsten, p. 70; December 2, 2001, review of Uncle Tungsten, p. 86; March 24, 2002, review of Oaxaca Journal, p. 18; June 2, 2002, review of Oaxaca Journal, p. 27.
Observer (London, England), December 9, 2001, Robert McCrum, interview with Oliver Sacks, p. 17.
People, March 17, 1986; February 11, 1991, p. 91; August 24, 1998, "Oliver Sacks: The Mind Traveller," p. 27.
Publishers Weekly, January 1, 1996, p. 69; November 25, 1996, p. 63; December 2, 1996, p. 31; August 13, 2001, review of Uncle Tungsten, p. 295; October 1, 2001, Tracy Cochran, interview with Oliver Sacks, p. 32; June 30, 2003, review of The Best American Science Writing 2003, p. 64.
San Francisco Chronicle, March 31, 2002, Carl T. Hall, interview with Oliver Sacks, p. 2.
School Library Journal, July, 1997, Carol DeAngelo, review of The Island of the Colorblind, p. 119.
Science, January 18, 2002, Leo P. Kadanoff, review of Uncle Tungsten, p. 448.
Science News, September 6, 2003, review of The Best American Science Writing 2003, p. 159.
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.
Wisconsin State Journal, September 2, 2001, William R. Wineke, "Renowned Doctor Brings Tales of Oddities to Madison," p. F1.
Writer, April, 2002, Oliver Sacks, "How I Write," p. 66.
Yale Review, winter, 1988, p. 172.
Oliver Sacks Official Web site, http://www.oliversacks.com (October 18, 2004).
Salon.com, http://www.salon.com/ (July 30, 2003), Dwight Garner, interview with Oliver Sacks.