Oliver Sacks

Oliver Sacks (Brent Nicastro photo) Oliver Sacks (Brent Nicastro photo)

On this date in 1933, neurologist and author Oliver Sacks was born in London, England, to a Jewish couple: Samuel Sacks, a medical general practitioner, and Muriel Elsie Landau, one of England's first female surgeons. He earned his medical degree at Oxford University (Queen's College), and did residencies and fellowship work at Mount Zion Hospital in San Francisco and at UCLA. Since 1965, he has lived in New York, where he is a practicing neurologist, while maintaining his British citizenship. In July of 2007, he was appointed Professor of Neurology and Psychiatry at Columbia University Medical Center, and he was also designated the university's first Columbia University Artist. In 1966 Dr. Sacks began working as a consulting neurologist for Beth Abraham Hospital in the Bronx, a chronic care hospital where he encountered an extraordinary group of patients, many of whom had spent decades in strange, frozen states, like human statues, unable to initiate movement. He recognized these patients as survivors of the great pandemic of sleepy sickness that had swept the world from 1916 to 1927, and treated them with a then-experimental drug, L-dopa, which enabled them to come back to life. They became the subjects of his book Awakenings, which later inspired a play by Harold Pinter ("A Kind of Alaska") and the Oscar-nominated feature film ("Awakenings") with Robert De Niro and Robin Williams. Sacks is perhaps best known for his collections of case histories from the far borderlands of neurological experience, The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat and An Anthropologist on Mars, in which he describes patients struggling to live with conditions ranging from Tourette's syndrome to autism, parkinsonism, musical hallucination, epilepsy, phantom limb syndrome, schizophrenia, retardation and Alzheimer's disease. He has investigated the world of deaf people and sign language in Seeing Voices, and a rare community of colorblind people in The Island of the Colorblind. He has written about his experiences as a doctor in Migraine and as a patient in A Leg to Stand On. His autobiographical Uncle Tungsten: Memories of a Chemical Boyhood was published in 2001, and his most recent book is Musicophilia: Tales of Music and the Brain.

Sacks's work, which has been supported by the Guggenheim Foundation and the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation, regularly appears in the New Yorker and the New York Review of Books, as well as various medical journals. The New York Times has referred to Dr. Sacks as "the poet laureate of medicine," and in 2002 he was awarded the Lewis Thomas Prize by Rockefeller University, which recognizes the scientist as poet. He is an honorary fellow of both the American Academy of Arts and Letters and the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, and holds honorary degrees from many universities, including Oxford, the Karolinska Institute, Georgetown, Bard, Gallaudet, Tufts and the Catholic University of Peru. In 2005, he received an Emperor Has No Clothes Award from the Freedom From Religion. His acceptance speech was titled "Invasion of Irrationalism." He also began serving in 2009 on the Foundation's Honorary Board. Not the least of his honors is 2-mile-wide Asteroid 84928 Oliversacks, discovered in 2003 and named for him.

But all this was shattered with the impact of the war, and then with the rapid postwar social changes in our corner of London. I myself, traumatized at Braefield, had lost touch with, lost interest in, the religion of my childhood. I regret that I was to lose it as early and as abruptly as I did, and this feeling of sadness or nostalgia was strangely admixed with a raging atheism, a sort of fury with God for not existing, not taking care, not preventing the war, but allowing it, and all its horrors, to occur.

As I write, in New York in mid-December, the city is full of Christmas trees and menorahs. I would be inclined to say, as an old Jewish atheist, that these things mean nothing to me, but Hannukah songs are evoked in my mind whenever an image of a menorah impinges on my retina, even when I am not consciously aware of it.

—Uncle Tungsten, pp. 178-79 (Knopf 2001) Musicophilia: Tales of Music and the Brain, p. 35 (Knopf, 2007)

Compiled by Bill Dunn

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