Oliver Sacks mapped human brain even as he struggled with his own
Published 31/08/2015 | 02:30
Oliver Sacks, the neurologist who has died aged 82 of cancer, wrote perceptive accounts of intriguing neurological disorders in books such as Awakenings (1973) and The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat (1985). Away from his work, he was variously a biker who struggled with his sexuality, a weightlifter and wild swimmer.
Sacks's writing fascinated and inspired writers and film directors and showed how patients, who are isolated by disease, can still retain their dignity and humanity.
Sacks's subjects were people afflicted with fantastic perceptual and intellectual aberrations; people who had lost their memories and with them, the greater part of their pasts; people unable to recognise common objects; Tourette's syndrome sufferers stricken with violent tics and grimaces and unable to stop themselves shouting obscenities; sufferers from Asperger's syndrome who could not relate to other people but often possessed uncanny talents.
In his best known book, Awakenings, Sacks told the extraordinary story of a group of patients at Beth Abraham Hospital in the Bronx, where he worked as a consultant neurologist. The patients were survivors of the great epidemic of encephalitis lethargica (sleeping sickness) that had swept the world from 1916 to 1927, and had spent the subsequent decades in a comatose state, unable to initiate movement.
Their cause had long been given up as hopeless, until 1969, when Sacks tried the (then new) Parkinson's disease drug L-dopa, which had an astonishing "awakening" effect, transforming previously lifeless individuals into personable and intelligent human beings. Tragically, most of the patients eventually returned to their former frozen state as the drug ceased to have an effect.
WH Auden declared Awakenings to be a masterpiece of medical literature. It inspired a play by Harold Pinter and an Oscar-nominated film starring Robin Williams as the dedicated doctor and Robert De Niro as a patient temporarily freed from years of catatonia.
Sacks wrote several books of case histories of which the best known was The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat - a series of accounts, including that of a music teacher whose visual agnosia made it impossible for him to recognise everyday objects and caused him to try to pick up his wife's head and put it on his own as if it were a hat.
Sacks's ability to combine scientific detachment with sympathetic understanding of the pathos of his patients' predicaments and the astonishing resilience of human life, gave his books enormous poise and power.
Sacks was just as precise and affecting when analysing his own life. He described his own traumatic childhood in Uncle Tungsten: Memories of a Chemical Boyhood (2001). In his autobiography On the Move (2015), he revealed his past drug use ("staggering bouts of pharmacological experimentation", noted one reviewer) and his private life.
Sacks never married, lived alone for most of his life and was chronically shy. In the book, however, he revealed details of his homosexuality. In America, he pumped iron on Venice's Muscle Beach and became a leather-clad biker. On learning of her son's sexuality, however, his mother exclaimed: "You are an abomination. I wish you had never been born."
When he turned 40, Sacks had a week-long liaison with a Harvard student. "After that sweet birthday fling," he recalled, "I was to have no sex for the next 35 years."
Oliver Wolf Sacks was born on July 9, 1933, into a Jewish family in Cricklewood, north London, the youngest of four sons of a pair of wealthy physicians. He had an idyllic early childhood, waited on by servants and spoilt by a vast extended family. Among a gallery of eccentric uncles and aunts were a pioneer radiologist, a prominent Zionist who was entrusted with the translation of the Balfour Declaration into French and Russian, and a physicist who developed Marmite and invented a luminous paint used in the Second World War.
After the outbreak of war, Oliver, then aged six, was evacuated to an English Midlands boarding school called Braefield, where he was subjected to unrelenting cruelty by a headmaster who was "unhinged by his own power... vicious and sadistic".
The experience robbed Oliver of his faith in God. He was left with a host of phobias and his response was to take refuge in the unthreatening world of science and mathematics. But what really caught his imagination was chemistry.
It was his uncle Dave (or "Uncle Tungsten"), the owner of a light bulb factory in Farringdon, who opened his nephew's eyes to the magical world of atoms and molecules. Back home, young Oliver was given a free rein by his parents to conduct his own experiments.
Sacks went on to take degrees in Physiology, Biology and Medicine at Queen's College, Oxford, and at Middlesex Hospital Medical School, later taking junior medical posts at the hospital. By this time, he had become fascinated by neurology and in 1960, moved to Mount Zion Hospital in San Francisco to study the subject. In California, he rode with the Hells Angels Motorcycle Club and won a state championship for weightlifting.
After being banished from Mount Zion Hospital in 1965, he moved to Beth Abraham Hospital in the Bronx. At the same time, he was appointed instructor in neurology at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine and as a consultant neurologist at the Headache Unit, Montefiore Hospital. From 1971, he was consultant neurologist to New York's Little Sisters of the Poor, a home for the aged, and from 1992, was adjunct professor of neurology at the New York University School of Medicine. Sacks won numerous awards, including being appointed CBE in 2001, and was a fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Letters.
Oliver Sacks was born on July 9 1933, died August 30 2015.