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If you like Oliver Sacks's story, you might also like:
Roger Bannister,
Keith Black,
Benjamin Carson,
Francis Collins,
Judah Folkman,
Stephen Jay Gould,
Jonas Salk,
John Sexton,
Andrew Weil and
Edward O. Wilson

Oliver Sacks's
recommended reading: Madame Curie

Related Links:
Sacks Bio
Sacks Foundation

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Oliver Sacks
Oliver Sacks
Profile of Oliver Sacks Biography of Oliver Sacks Interview with Oliver Sacks Oliver Sacks Photo Gallery

Oliver Sacks Biography

Neurologist and Author

Oliver Sacks Date of birth: July 9, 1933
Date of death: August 30, 2015

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  Oliver Sacks

Oliver Sacks was born in London, England. He grew up surrounded by a large extended family, one with many doctors and scientists. Both his parents were medical doctors. His father was a general practitioner and his mother was one of the first female surgeons in England.

His childhood was darkened by the shadow of war. As Germany began sustained bombing of London, eight-year-old Oliver and his older brother were sent to a boarding school in the countryside. The separation from his home and parents, along with the harsh discipline of the school, was traumatic for young Oliver. Later in life, he attributed his severe shyness and discomfort in ordinary social situations to this early experience. He also experienced lifelong difficulty in recognizing faces, a little-known ailment at the time, but one that is known today as prosopagnosia or face blindness. His older brother was even more severely affected, and never recovered.

Oliver Sacks Biography Photo
Young Oliver Sacks took comfort in the study of science. As a child, he was fascinated by a giant display of the periodic table of elements at the Museum of Natural History. A chemist uncle, nicknamed Uncle Tungsten, encouraged his interest in chemistry. His mother shared the insights of her medical practice with her talented son, showing him specimens of diseased brains and deformed fetuses, and bringing him along to observe the dissection of a human cadaver. His interest in neurology and the brain was nurtured at St. Paul's' School, which maintained a collection of preserved human brains in jars, including those of famous writers.

For years, Oliver followed the course his family set for him, excelling in school and obtaining a medical degree at Oxford. But by adulthood, a rift had developed between Oliver and his parents. Oliver admitted to his father that he was gay, a fact that his parents could not reconcile with the teachings of their Orthodox Jewish faith. Seeking a new life away from the powerful influence of his family, he moved to the United States in 1960.

He undertook a neurology internship at the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA), where he also completed his residency in neurology -- "the only branch of medicine that could sustain a thinking man," as he later called it. Life in Southern California agreed with Sacks. The nascent counterculture of the 1960s offered opportunities for a far greater variety of social interactions than the more traditional atmosphere he had known in England. He bought a motorcycle and explored this new world on long distance road trips. In San Francisco he made the acquaintance of the British expatriate poet Thom Gunn, who encouraged his interest in writing. He lived in the beach community of Venice, where he joined the fraternity of bodybuilders at Muscle Beach, and set a local powerlifting record. He also experimented recklessly with all sorts of drugs. While these experiences, later described in his memoir Hallucinations, gave him some insight into the delusions of his psychotic patients, they also endangered his physical and mental health.

Oliver Sacks Biography Photo
In 1965, Dr. Sacks moved to New York City, where he would make his home for the rest of his life. He gave up his drug experiments and began to focus on a serious career as a practicing neurologist. One of his first jobs in New York was at a nursing home, Beth Abraham, in the Bronx. There he encountered a group of silent patients, standing like statues. An epidemic of encephalitis lethargica -- "sleeping sickness" -- that had swept the Western world from 1916 to 1927 had shut many of them off from the world for over 40 years. As he got to know them, Dr. Sacks came to believe that intact human personalities were trapped inside these expressionless bodies. With the use of the newly available experimental drug L-dopa, he was able to revive some of these patients and return them to consciousness for a time. In many cases, the adjustment to life in a world that had passed them by was painful. Many reverted quickly to their catatonic states, others gradually declined. A few retained some of their faculties for years after regaining consciousness.

From the beginning of his medical practice, Sacks took copious notes of all his cases. For his first book, he drew on a subject that had long fascinated him. From an early age he had suffered from migraine headaches, as had his mother. Drawing on his personal experience, deep learning and vast collection of detailed case histories, he wrote his first book, Migraine, in only ten days. His account of the sleeping sickness cases, Awakenings, was first published in 1973. It attracted relatively little attention at the time, but Sacks acquired a small following of readers, not only among fellow neurologists but among members of the general pubic, not least other writers, who recognized him as a gifted storyteller as well as a brilliant clinician.

Oliver Sacks Biography Photo
While continuing his duties at Beth Abraham, Sacks also worked at Holy Family Homes, nursing facilities run by the order of nuns known as the Little Sisters of the Poor -- one in the Bronx, one in Queens, and one in Brooklyn. Unlike many other clinicians, Sacks always looked for the individual behind the symptoms, in hopes of treating even the most apparently hopeless cases. Through the 1970s, Sacks worked in relative obscurity, compiling case histories of a vast array of neurological ailments: epilepsy, Parkinson's disease, autism, Tourette's syndrome, retardation, dementia, schizophrenia, brain tumors and head injuries.

The extraordinary symptoms he encountered in his practice led him to write the book that brought his work to the attention of the general pubic, The Man Who Mistook His Wife For a Hat. Readers and critics were fascinated by his stories of men and women who remained highly functional in many respects but had lost faculties that most of us take for granted. Some had lost all memory of their past lives, or were no longer able to recognize family members and common objects. Some had no control of their limbs or speech, while others appeared to be developmentally disabled yet possessed extraordinary artistic or mathematical abilities.

Published in 1983, the book was an international success, not only because of the extraordinary subject matter but because of Sacks's deep insight as a clinician and gifts as a writer. He continued to explore the outer limits of neurological experience in his subsequent books, An Anthropologist on Mars and The Island of the Colorblind. The worldwide success of these books drew renewed attention to his earlier writing. In 1990, his book Awakenings was made into a feature film, with the actor Robin Williams playing Dr. Sacks, and Robert De Niro one of his patients.

In addition to his books, and articles for medical journals, Sacks also became a frequent contributor to periodicals such as The New York Review of Books and The New Yorker. His opinion was sought on all subjects pertaining to the brain, and many others besides, and his work was valued for its humanity and literary interest. The New York Times dubbed him "the poet laureate of medicine," and Rockefeller University awarded him its Lewis Thomas Prize, which honors "the scientist as poet."

Oliver Sacks Biography Photo
Despite his growing fame, Dr. Sacks continued to see patients, while continuing to write on an ever-widening range of subjects. Always physically active, Sachs was a prodigious swimmer and an enthusiast of many outdoor activities. He described his own difficult recovery from a mountain climbing accident in A Leg to Stand On. A more serious health problem presented itself in 2006, when Sacks was found to have an ocular melanoma, a cancer of the eye. The treatment he underwent left him with many more productive years, although he lost his sight in one eye. For most of his life, Sacks had found it difficult to form intimate relationships. In 2006 he finally formed a deep emotional partnership with another author, Billy Hays, who shared his interest in the history of medicine.

Music had always played a large role in Sacks's life, and he was fascinated by the role it played in the ailments and recovery of many of his patients, thoughts he shared in his bestseller Musicophilia: Tales of Music and the Brain, published in 2007. That same year he accepted an appointment as Professor of Neurology and Psychiatry at Columbia University Medical Center and was designated the university's first Columbia University Artist. In 2012 Sacks transferred his academic affiliation to the New York University School of Medicine, and extended his clinical practice to the NYU Comprehensive Epilepsy Center.

In his later years, Sacks turned increasingly to personal memoir, recounting his experience with ocular melanoma in The Mind's Eye, and his early pharmaceutical adventures in Hallucinations. In 2015 he published a substantial autobiography, On the Move. The same year, he announced to his readers that his cancer had returned, and that there was no course of treatment that could save his life. As death approached, he shared his thoughts on the end of life in the pages of The New York Times and The New Yorker. His last essays were collected in the volume Gratitude. He died at home in New York City at the age of 82.

This page last revised on Nov 07, 2015 09:46 EDT
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