From the Archives: The Elemental Oliver Sacks

By | Nov 12, 2012

Now that Oliver Sacks is back in the news with the release of his new book, Hallucinations, which explores the connections between hallucinations and intoxication, illness and injury, take a look back at Moment‘s profile of the famed neurologist:

“According to family lore, Sacks’s grandfathers were so Orthodox that one would wake up at night if his yarmulke slipped off his head while the other would not swim without his. Sacks himself was raised in an illustrious Jewish clan in London. His parents’ spacious house on Mapesbury Road was strictly kosher, and the family—four boys, of which he was the youngest—regularly attended shul together. But for the Sacks family, Judaism revolved around family and tradition rather than belief. As a child, he delighted in the Shema, lighting Shabbat candles with his mother, the rituals of the Seder and especially Sukkot, when the family built a Sukkah in the garden.

“Although the Sacks household was always filled with cousins, uncles and aunts, some of whom wore sheitls and were, in his words, “excessively Orthodox,” the dominant culture was not of religion, but of science. Sacks’s mother Elsie was a surgeon who later specialized in gynecology and obstetrics; to teach Oliver about the brain she dissected malformed fetuses at home. His father Samuel, a popular family doctor who made house calls, had set aside his dream of becoming a neurologist. Many relatives were scientifically inclined, among them his mother’s brother Dave Landau, the eponymous Uncle Tungsten, who, in addition to his abiding interest in chemistry, owned a factory that manufactured tungsten light bulbs. The scientific streak dates back to the 17th century, when one of Sacks’ ancestors was an “alchemical rabbi,” practicing the ancient pseudoscience of alchemy that led to chemistry.”


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