American neurologist Oliver Sacks is known throughout the world, primarily thanks to his books, the most popular of which was The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat. Sacks always retells the bizarre stories of his patients, which could easily become plots for tabloids thanks to the quirks of such a mysterious matter as a human brain, with great respect. As for the biography of Oliver Sacks, Russian readers do not know much about him. Meanwhile, he is very far from the stereotyped image of the “absent-minded professor.”
· Born on July 9, 1933 in London into a family of doctors (Sacks’s mother was a surgeon, his father was a general practitioner)
· Studied at Oxford, in 1958 received his BM BCh degree. After completing his degree, he practiced in clinics in London and Birmingham for two years.
· In 1960, he moved to the United States, first to San Francisco, and in 1965 to New York. Begins to teach at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine and work as a practitioner.
· As a consultant neurologist, spent most of his life at Beth Abraham Hospital in the Bronx.
· Since 2007, he served as Professor of Neurology and Psychiatry at Columbia University.
· Sacks’s first book Migraine was published in 1970.
· In total, Oliver Sacks wrote 13 works, his last book Hallucinations was published in 2012.
· Honorary Fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and a member of the American Academy of Arts and Letters (Literature).
· Winner of the Lewis Thomas Prize, which is awarded to scientists at Rockefeller University for achievements in literature.
· Sacks has been awarded honorary degrees from many universities in the world, including Oxford University, Carolina State University, Georgetown University and others.
· Died on August 30, 2015 at the age of 82.
Poet of Medicine
Back in the 1970s, the New York Times called Oliver Sacks the Poet Laureate of Medicine*. Sacks’ works were extraordinary for their time. It was a completely unusual genre and style: the author described real medical cases, yet not in dry medical language, but as the life stories of ordinary people.
[* The Poet Laureate in the United States is an “official” poet of the Library of Congress, who advises the Library and “promotes” literature in accordance with his/her preferences. In 1991–92, Joseph Brodsky was the Poet Laureate.]
All of Sacks’s books are about various mental and neurological disorders, and this side of medicine has always been especially incomprehensible and mysterious for the layman. Sacks is both enlightening the public by talking about how the human brain works, and at the same time, presenting the true stories of real people that read like a gripping novel. Two his works – Awakenings and An Anthropologist on Mars – served as a basis for feature films.
There are thirteen works in the bibliography of Oliver Sacks. The characters of his stories suffer from sleeping sickness, Tourette’s syndrome, autism, phantom pain syndrome and other well-known and rare diseases. All of them somehow have to live up with their medical conditions, struggle, look for their place in life. The books also show how doctors and psychologists help their patients, what methods they use.
To date, the following books have been published in Russian: Awakenings, The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat, Migraine, An Anthropologist on Mars, A Leg to Stand On, The Mind’s Eye, Seeing Voices: A Journey Into the World of the Deaf, and Hallucinations.
Biography: Life and Work
In his early years in North America, Sacks had time to ride a motorcycle and hitchhike across the continent, volunteer to extinguish forests in British Columbia, and even be recruited into the Canadian army. At that time, he also indulged in drugs. Much later, Sacks admitted that the chapter about the cocaine addict in The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat was autobiographical.
However, this is not the only case that Sacks has referred in his books to describing his own disorders. He writes about his migraine in the same-name book, about prosopagnosia (inability to distinguish between faces) in The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat, about loss of vision due to retinoblastoma in The Mind’s Eye.
Sacks’s autobiography titled On the Move: A Life was released in April 2015 in the US and has not yet been translated into Russian.
Oliver Sacks worked as a practicing neurologist for the rest of his life. Interestingly, he was dismissed with a scandal from the clinic he worked at that time after the publication of his first book. The clinic’s administration considered the publication of patients’ stories a gross violation of medical ethics. Sacks admitted that the books of the famous Soviet neurologist Alexander Luria had a great influence on his writing style. After reading Luria’s The Mind of a Mnemonist: A Little Book About a Vast Memory, Sacks was amazed at the fact that the author focuses not on the clinical picture of the disease, but on the very personality of the patient. Sacks and Luria were in active correspondence until the death of the Soviet scientist. In February 2015, Oliver Sacks said in his New York Times column that he was terminally ill with cancer.
The article ends with the words: “I cannot pretend I am without fear. But my predominant feeling is one of gratitude. I have loved and been loved; I have been given much and I have given something in return; I have read and traveled and thought and written. I have had an intercourse with the world, the special intercourse of writers and readers. Above all, I have been a sentient being, a thinking animal, on this beautiful planet, and that in itself has been an enormous privilege and adventure.”