Uncle Xenon: The Elemental Oliver Sacks
Later, when Sacks chose to study medicine at Oxford, his imagination was caught by the chemistry of the brain, leading him to the clinical study of neurology. But after graduating in 1960, Sacks was rather a failure at medical research; his studies of human nutrition were “disastrous,” he once told the British newspaper The Guardian. He traveled to Canada, ostensibly on vacation, and sent a telegram to his parents with nothing more than the word, “Staying.” (He announced an intention to become a U.S. citizen 46 years ago but “never got ‘round to it.”) He made his way to California, eventually taking a position as a neurologist at UCLA. During this period, he also began to pursue another dream, of being a writer.
In 1966, he switched coasts, joining the Albert Einstein College of Medicine in New York. More attempts at research met with failure, he told The Guardian: “I lost samples. I broke machines. Finally they said to me, ‘Sacks, you’re a menace. Get out. Go see patients. They matter less.’”
Of course, it was his feeling that patients did not matter less that was to make Sacks such an insightful clinician and writer. In 1970, he published a book on migraines, an affliction he had suffered from during his youth. Three years later he published Awakenings, based on his experience with a group of patients at Beth Abraham Hospital in the Bronx. Most of them poor elderly Jews, they had been immobilized for decades by a Parkinsonian torpor as a result of contracting encephalitis during a global epidemic in the 1920s.
Sacks was touched by these patients, written off as incurable by the medical establishment. In Awakenings, later made into a film starring Robin Williams as Sacks, he recounts their unorthodox treatment with an experimental drug called L-dopa, with which he roused them, temporarily, to full consciousness. But not until The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat in 1988 did Sacks become a popular sensation, revered for his storytelling and ability to make understandable the complex orchestration of neurons and synapses that make up the brain. “He makes very thoughtful clinical observations and looks for patients with similar syndromes,” says Columbia University neuroscientist Eric Kandel. Kandel recently helped persuade Sacks to leave his longtime post at Albert Einstein to join Columbia’s faculty, and become its first interdisciplinary “university artist.”
“At heart I’m sort of a naturalist of everything from minerals and plants and animals to human beings and human experiences,” Sacks says. “I want to know what it’s like to be someone who’s blind or having hallucinations or hearing music, although I would also like to know what goes on in their brain while that’s happening. What could be more interesting than the brain and mind?”