Migraine: Evolution of a Common Disorder, 1970 (revised as Migraine: Understanding a Common Disorder, 1985, and as Migraine, 1992)
Awakenings, 1973, revised 1983, 1987
A Leg to Stand On, 1984
The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat, and Other Clinical Tales, 1985
Seeing Voices: A Journey into the World of the Deaf, 1989
An Anthropologist on Mars: Seven Paradoxical Tales, 1995
The Island of the Colorblind, 1997
Uncle Tungsten: Memories of a Chemical Boyhood, 2001
Oaxaca Journal, 2002
Hailed as one of the great clinical writers of the twentieth century, Oliver Wolf Sacks describes in his books the often bizarre worlds of patients trapped by their neurological afflictions. The son of Samuel and Elsie (Landau) Sacks, both of whom were neurologists, Sacks took an early interest in medicine. Reflecting the veneration for the medical field instilled by their parents, two of Sacks’s three brothers also became physicians. Sacks attended Queen’s College, Oxford University, where he earned a master’s degree in biochemistry in 1956. He continued his medical studies at Middlesex Hospital in London until 1960, conducting internships in medicine, surgery, and neurology there. He completed his residency in neurology and neuropathology at the University of California, Los Angeles, in 1965. He has undertaken medical appointments and professorships at many hospitals and research institutions, including the Albert Einstein College of Medicine in New York, the Bronx Psychiatric Center, New York University School of Medicine, Beth Abraham Hospital, and Mt. Sinai Medical Center, New York, as well as maintaining his own private neurology practice. He has received many honorary degrees and awards, for both his medical and his literary endeavors. Among the latter are the Hawthornden Prize in 1974 for Awakenings; the Harold D. Vursell Memorial Award in 1989 from the American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters; the George S. Polk Award (1994), a National Association of Science Writers Award (1995), and the Esquire/Apple/Waterstone Book of the Year Award (1995), all for An Anthropologist on Mars; and, in 2002, the Lewis Thomas Prize from Rockefeller University, which recognizes the literary work of scientists.
Sacks fits this description well: A talented clinician, he also has the literary gift of being able to write clearly and compassionately about a wide range of complex neurological disorders. In the tradition of his mentor, the great Russian neurologist A. R. Luria, Sacks is able to dramatize his patients’ inner lives and, in his depictions of their bizarre and baffling symptoms, reflect on the mysteries of the human mind. Through the success of his books, he has been able to reach beyond his specialty to a broad general audience.
Sacks’s earliest book, Migraine, is a voluminous study of this strange and often excruciating neurological malady, which may beset a patient for an entire lifetime. Sacks, who suffers from migraines himself, has compiled a full account of the history and etiology of the disease, which is sometimes accompanied by visions of luminous wheels, auras, lights, or other psychovisual hallucinations. He describes the visionary experiences of some famous mystics, such as the medieval nun Hildegard von Bingen, in terms of their migraines. Sacks’s revised edition of Migraine updates his original research and adds additional case histories and clinical material.
Awakenings presents case histories of twenty elderly New York patients with sleeping sickness who later developed symptoms of Parkinson’s disease. Many of them had been hospitalized for decades in a nearly catatonic state until 1969, when the new drug L-dopa was administered to them. Sacks describes them as “dormant volcanoes” whose lives were suddenly transformed when they were “awakened” with L-dopa. Awakenings presents a detailed clinical account of these patients as they emerged from their isolation and tried to recover their lives. Sacks writes of the tremendous excitement at seeing these lives suddenly redeemed through these miraculous awakenings. Unfortunately, the recoveries experienced by Sacks’s patients were often only temporary and were followed by such bizarre neurological reactions that their medication had to be curtailed. The text of Awakenings is divided into three sections: “Introduction,” “Awakenings,” and “Perspectives.” Sacks begins with a detailed discussion of Parkinsonism, discusses the individual case history of each patient, and offers some thoughts on the overall pattern of this disease and on what it reveals about the nature of memory, self, and identity. A revised edition provides a new introduction and an update on the progress of his twenty original patients. Awakenings served as the inspiration for a one-act play by Harold Pinter, A Kind of Alaska, produced in 1982. In the play Pinter dramatizes the plight of one of Sacks’s patients. The book also formed the basis for the 1990 film Awakenings.
Sacks’s third book, A Leg to Stand On, is a remarkable personal account of the aftermath of a leg injury that he sustained while hiking in Norway. The damage to his left knee and muscle tissue was so great that he lost all neurological sensation in the entire limb. He describes in great detail the loss of proprioception or body sense of his limb, so that he had to struggle in physical therapy to repossess it and learn to use it again. Sacks offers many perceptive comments on what it is like to become a patient: the feeling of helplessness and dependence, the psychology of debilitation, and the importance of recovering one’s inner harmony to promote healing and recovery.
The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat, and Other Clinical Tales is a collection of twenty-four fictionalized clinical accounts of patients with various bizarre neurological symptoms. Sacks recasts their illnesses in mythological or metaphorical terms, presenting in turn personalized accounts of neurological losses, excesses, transports, and impairment. His tales read like short stories, blending dialogue and character with abundant clinical details and background information to help make sense of these strange accounts of memory lapses, identity confusion, uncontrollable tics, visual agnosia, and prodigious musical memory. The book was the basis for both an opera by Michael Nyman and a play by Peter Brook, The Man Who (pr. 1994).
Seeing Voices turned from individuals to entire populations as Sacks addresses the world of the congenitally deaf and the neurological bases for their visual language. An Anthropologist on Mars returned to individual stories, collecting a series of articles, or neurohistories as Sacks calls them, based on a mixture of both clinical medicine and anecdotal accounts. As Sacks himself has stated, such accounts are not merely the discussions of the clinical aspects of the diseases but also narratives of the disease as observed through “the eyes of the patient.” In The Island of the Colorblind, Sacks turned again to populations, relating his travels to the Pacific atoll of Pingelap and a community there in which the entire community of chommoros is entirely color-blind. Sacks investigated not only the genetic and neurological bases of their condition but also the way in which the people have expressed it culturally.
Sacks said about Uncle Tungsten that he “intended to write a book on aging, but then found myself flying in the opposite direction, thinking of youth, and my own partly war-dominated, partly chemistry-dominated youth” in wartime England. The memoir’s title refers to Sacks’s Uncle Dave, a manufacturer of tungsten filaments, one of the first of the author’s many influences: from the famous scientists who were family friends to his brother Michael’s psychosis, which Sacks characterizes as a “magical and malignant world [that was] closing in about him.”
Oaxaca Journal, which became part of the National Geographics Directions series, reflects another of Sacks’s interests, the ancient family of fern plants, which drew him to Oaxaca, Mexico. The book transcribes his travel journals, chronicling the people, places, and plants of the region.