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Oliver Sacks

Oliver Sacks in 2005
Born 9 July 1933 (1933-07-09) (age 76)
London, England
Profession Physician
Specialism Neurology
Known for Popular books containing case studies of some of his patients
Years active 1966 – present

Oliver Wolf Sacks, CBE, FRCP (born 9 July 1933, London, England), is a British neurologist residing in New York City. He is a professor of neurology and psychiatry at Columbia University, where he also holds the title of Columbia Artist. He previously spent many years on the clinical faculty of Yeshiva University's Albert Einstein College of Medicine.

Sacks is the author of several bestselling books,[1] including several collections of case studies of people with neurological disorders. His 1973 book Awakenings was adapted into an Academy Award-nominated film of the same name in 1990 starring Robin Williams and Robert De Niro.[2] Most recently, the author and his book Musicophilia: Tales of Music and the Brain were the subject of "Musical Minds", an episode of the PBS series Nova.


Early life and education

Sacks was the youngest of four children born to a North London Jewish couple: Samuel Sacks, a physician, and Muriel Elsie Landau, one of the first female surgeons in England.[3] Sacks had a large extended family, and among his first cousins are Israeli statesman Abba Eban, writer and director Jonathan Lynn, and economist Robert Aumann. Two of Sacks's elder brothers, David and Marcus, were to become general medical practitioners in their own right.

When Sacks was six years old, he and his brother Michael were evacuated from London to escape The Blitz, retreating to a boarding school in the Midlands, where he remained until 1943.[3] He attended St Paul's School, London, UK. During his youth, he was a keen amateur chemist, as recalled in his memoir Uncle Tungsten.[4] He also learned to share his parents' enthusiasm for medicine and entered The Queen's College, Oxford University in 1951,[3] from which he received a Bachelor of Arts (BA) in physiology and biology in 1954.[5] At the same institution, in 1958 he went on to incept as a Master of Arts (MA) and earn an BM BCh, thereby qualifying to practice medicine.

Professional life

After converting his British qualifications to American recognition (i.e., an MD as opposed to BM BCh), Sacks moved to New York, where he has lived and practiced neurology since 1965.

Sacks began consulting at chronic care facility Beth Abraham Hospital (now Beth Abraham Health Services) in 1966.[6] At Beth Abraham, Sacks worked with a group of survivors of the 1920s sleeping sickness, encephalitis lethargica, who had been unable to move on their own for decades.[6] These patients and his treatment of them were the basis of Sacks' book Awakenings.[6]

Sacks served as an instructor and later clinical professor of neurology at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine from 1966 to 2007, and also held an appointment at New York University Medical School from 1999 to 2007. In July 2007, Sacks joined the faculty of Columbia University Medical Center as a professor of neurology and psychiatry. At the same time, he was appointed Columbia University's first Columbia University Artist at the university's Morningside campus, recognizing the role of his work in bridging the arts and sciences.

Since 1966, Sacks has served as a neurological consultant to various nursing homes in New York City run by the Little Sisters of the Poor, and from 1966 to 1991, he was a consulting neurologist at Bronx State Hospital.

Sacks' work at Beth Abraham helped provide the foundation on which the Institute for Music and Neurologic Function (IMNF) is built; Sacks is currently an honorary medical advisor.[7] In 2000, IMNF honored Sacks with its first Music Has Power Award.[8] The IMNF again bestowed a Music Has Power Award on Sacks in 2006 to commemorate "his 40 years at Beth Abraham and honor his outstanding contributions in support of music therapy and the effect of music on the human brain and mind".[9]

Sacks remains a consultant neurologist to the Little Sisters of the Poor, and maintains a practice in New York City. He serves on the boards of the The Neurosciences Institute and the New York Botanical Garden.

Literary work

Since 1970, Oliver Sacks has been writing books about his experience with neurological patients. Sacks's writings have been translated into over twenty five languages. In addition to his books, Sacks is a regular contributor to The New Yorker and The New York Review of Books, as well as other medical, scientific, and general publications.[10][11][12] He was awarded the Lewis Thomas Prize for Writing about Science in 2001.[13]

Sacks's work has been featured in a "broader range of media than those of any other contemporary medical author"[14] and in 1990, The New York Times said he "has become a kind of poet laureate of contemporary medicine".[15] His descriptions of people coping with and adapting to neurological conditions or injuries often illuminate the ways in which the normal brain deals with perception, memory and individuality.

Sacks considers that his literary style grows out of the tradition of 19th-century "clinical anecdotes," a literary style that included detailed narrative case histories. He also counts among his inspirations the case histories of the Russian neuropsychologist A. R. Luria.[16]

Sacks describes his cases with a wealth of narrative detail, concentrating on the experiences of the patient (in the case of his A Leg to Stand On, the patient was himself). The patients he describes are often able to adapt to their situation in different ways despite the fact that their neurological conditions are usually considered incurable.[17] His most famous book, Awakenings, upon which the 1990 feature film of the same name is based, describes his experiences using the new drug L-Dopa on Beth Abraham post-encephalitic patients.[6] Awakenings was also the subject of the first documentary made (in 1974) for the British television series Discovery.

In his other books, he describes cases of Tourette syndrome and various effects of Parkinson's disease. The title article of The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat is about a man with visual agnosia and was the subject of a 1986 opera by Michael Nyman. The title article of An Anthropologist on Mars, which won a Polk Award for magazine reporting, is about Temple Grandin, a professor with high-functioning autism. Seeing Voices, Sacks' 1989 book, covers a variety of topics in deaf studies.

In his book The Island of the Colorblind Sacks describes the Chamorro people of Guam, who have a high incidence of a neurodegenerative disease known as Lytico-bodig (a devastating combination of Amyotrophic lateral sclerosis ALS, dementia, and parkinsonism). Along with Paul Cox, Sacks has published papers suggesting a possible environmental cause for the cluster, namely the toxin beta-methylamino L-alanine (BMAA) from the cycad nut accumulating by biomagnification in the flying fox bat.[18][19]

Sacks has sometimes faced criticism in the medical and disability studies communities. During the 1970s and 1980s, his book and articles on the "Awakenings" patients were criticized or ignored by much of the medical establishment, on the grounds that his work was not based on the quantitative, double-blind study model. His account of abilities of autistic savants has been questioned by the researcher Makoto Yamaguchi,[20] and Daniel Tammet shared this view. Arthur K. Shapiro—described as "the father of modern tic disorder research"[21]—referring to Sacks celebrity status and that his literary publications received greater publicity than Shapiro's medical publications, said he is "a much better writer than he is a clinician".[22] Howard Kushner's A Cursing Brain? : The Histories of Tourette Syndrome, says Shapiro "contrasted his own careful clinical work with Sacks's idiosyncratic and anecdotal approach to a clinical investigation".[23]

More sustained has been the critique of his political and ethical positions. Although many characterize Sacks as a "compassionate" writer and doctor,[24][25][26] others feel he exploits his subjects.[27] Sacks was called "the man who mistook his patients for a literary career" by British academic and disability-rights activist Tom Shakespeare,[28] and one critic called his work "a high-brow freak show".[29] Such criticism was echoed by a Sacks-like caricature played by Bill Murray in the film The Royal Tenenbaums.[30] Sacks himself has stated "I would hope that a reading of what I write shows respect and appreciation, not any wish to expose or exhibit for the thrill," he sighs, "but it's a delicate business."[31]


Since 1996, Sacks has been a member of The American Academy of Arts and Letters (Literature).[32] In 1999, Sacks became a Fellow of the New York Academy of Sciences.[33] Also in 1999, he became an Honorary Fellow at The Queen's College, Oxford.[34] In 2002, he became Fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences (Class IV—Humanities and Arts, Section 4—Literature).[35] and he was awarded the 2001 Lewis Thomas Prize by Rockefeller University.[36]

Sacks has been awarded honorary doctorates from the College of Staten Island (1991),[5] Tufts University (1991),[37] New York Medical College (1991),[5] Georgetown University (1992),[38] Medical College of Pennsylvania (1992),[5] Bard College (1992),[39] Queen's University (Ontario) (2001),[40] Gallaudet University (2005),[41] University of Oxford (2005),[42] Pontificia Universidad Católica del Perú (2006)[43], and Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory (2008).

Oxford University awarded him an honorary Doctor of Civil Law degree in June 2005.[44]

Sacks was appointed Commander of the Order of the British Empire (CBE) in the 2008 Queen's Birthday Honours.[45]

Asteroid 84928 Oliversacks, discovered in 2003 and 2 miles (3.2 km) in diameter, was named in his honor.[46]


Sacks has lived in New York City since 1965. He is a member of the American Fern Society and an avid swimmer.



  1. ^ "Borzoi Reader | Authors | Oliver Sacks". About the Author. Random House. Retrieved 2009-03-05. 
  2. ^ "Awakenings (1990)". IMDb: The Internet Movie Database. Retrieved 2009-03-05. 
  3. ^ a b c Brown, Andrew (5 March 2005). "Oliver Sacks Profile: Seeing double". The Guardian.,12084,1429477,00.html. Retrieved 2008-08-10. 
  4. ^ Sacks, Oliver (2001). Uncle Tungsten: Memories of a Chemical Boyhood. Vintage Books. ISBN 0-375-40448-1. 
  5. ^ a b c d "Oliver Sacks, MD, FRCP". Official site. Retrieved 2008-08-09. 
  6. ^ a b c d "Biography . Oliver Sacks, MD, FRCP". Official website. Retrieved 2008-08-09. 
  7. ^ "About the Institute". Institute for Music and Neurologic Function. Retrieved 2008-08-09. 
  8. ^ "Henry Z. Steinway honored with 'Music Has Power' award: Beth Abraham Hospital honors piano maker for a lifetime of 'affirming the value of music'". Music Trades Magazine. 1 January 2006. Retrieved 2008-08-09. 
  9. ^ Beth Abraham Family of Health Services (13 October 2006). "2006 Music Has Power Awards featuring performance by Rob Thomas, honoring acclaimed neurologist & author Dr. Oliver Sacks". Press release. Retrieved 2008-08-10. 
  10. ^ "Archive: Search: The New Yorker—Oliver Sacks". Retrieved 2008-08-13. 
  11. ^ "Oliver Sacks—The New York Review of Books". Retrieved 2008-08-13. 
  12. ^ "Oliver Sacks . Publications & Periodicals". Retrieved 2008-08-13. 
  13. ^ "Lewis Thomas Prize". The Rockefeller University. 18 March 2002. Retrieved 2008-08-09. 
  14. ^ Silberman, Steve. "The Fully Immersive Mind of Oliver Sacks". Retrieved 2008-08-10. 
  15. ^ Broyard, Anatole (1 April 1990). "Good books abut (sic) being sick". The New York Times. Retrieved 2008-08-10. 
  16. ^ "The Inner Life of the Broken Brain: Narrative and Neurology". Radio National. All in the Mind. 2 April 2005. Retrieved 2008-08-10. 
  17. ^ Sacks, Oliver (1996) [1995]. "Preface". An Anthropologist on Mars (New ed.). London: Picador. xiii–xviii. ISBN 0-330-34347-5. ""The sense of the brain's remarkable plasticity, its capacity for the most striking adaptations, not least in the special (and often desperate) circumstances of neural or sensory mishap, has come to dominate my own perception of my patients and their lives."" 
  18. ^ Murch SJ, Cox PA, Banack SA, Steele JC, Sacks OW (October 2004). "Occurrence of beta-methylamino-l-alanine (BMAA) in ALS/PDC patients from Guam". Acta Neurol. Scand. 110 (4): 267–9. doi:10.1111/j.1600-0404.2004.00320.x. PMID 15355492. 
  19. ^ Cox PA, Sacks OW (March 2002). "Cycad neurotoxins, consumption of flying foxes, and ALS-PDC disease in Guam". Neurology 58 (6): 956–9. PMID 11914415. 
  20. ^ Yamaguchi M (August 2007). "Questionable aspects of Oliver Sacks' (1985) report". J Autism Dev Disord 37 (7): 1396; discussion 1389–9, 1401. doi:10.1007/s10803-006-0257-0. PMID 17066308. 
  21. ^ Gadow KD, Sverd J (2006). "Attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, chronic tic disorder, and methylphenidate". Adv Neurol 99: 197–207. PMID 16536367. 
  22. ^ Kushner, HI. A Cursing Brain? : The Histories of Tourette Syndrome. Harvard University Press, 2000, p. 205. ISBN 0-674-00386-1
  23. ^ Kushner (2000), p. 204
  24. ^ Weinraub, Judith (13 January 1991). "Oliver Sacks: Hero of the Hopeless; The Doctor of 'Awakenings,' With Compassion for the Chronically Ill". The Washington Post. Retrieved 2008-08-12. 
  25. ^ Bianculli, David (25 August 1998). "Healthy Dose of Compassion in Medical 'Mind' Series". New York Daily News. Retrieved 2008-08-12. 
  26. ^ Kakutani, Michiko (14 February 1995). "Finding the Advantages In Some Mind Disorders". New York Times. Retrieved 2008-08-12. 
  27. ^ Verlager, Alicia (August 2006). "Decloaking Disability: Images of Disability and Technology in Science Fiction Media" (Masters' thesis). Retrieved 2008-08-10. "However, Sacks's use of his preoccupation with people with disabilities as the foundation for his professional career has led many disability advocates to compare him to P. T. Barnum, whose own professional career (and its subsequent monetary profit) was based to a large degree upon his employment of PWD as 'freaks.' ... Note also the science fiction aspect to the title of Sacks's book, which frames the disabled people he writes about as 'aliens' from a different planet. One issue in the dynamic of the expert who appoints himself as the official storyteller of the experience of disability is that both the professional and financial success of the storyteller often rely upon his framing of the disabled characters as extraordinary, freakish, or abnormal. This is what disability studies scholars and disability advocates term the 'medicalization of disability' (Linton 1998, 1-2)." 
  28. ^ Shakespeare, Tom (1996). "Book Review: An Anthropologist on Mars". Disability and Society 11 (1): 137–142. doi:10.1080/09687599650023380. Retrieved 2008-08-11. 
  29. ^ Couser, G. Thomas (December 2001). "The case of Oliver Sacks: The ethics of neuroanthropology" (PDF). The Poynter Center, Indiana University. Retrieved 2008-08-10. "One charge is that his work is, in effect, a high-brow freak show that invites its audience to gawk at human oddities ... Because Sacks' life writing takes place outside the confines of biomedicine and anthropology, it may not, strictly speaking, be subject to their explicit ethical codes." 
  30. ^ Klawans, Stuart (20 December 2001). "Home for the Holidays". The Nation. Retrieved 2008-08-11. 
  31. ^ Burkeman, Oliver (10 May 2002). "Sacks appeal". The Guardian. Retrieved 2008-08-18. 
  32. ^ "Current Members". The American Academy of Arts and Letters. Retrieved 2008-08-15. 
  33. ^ "New York Academy of Sciences Announces 1999 Fellows". New York Academy of Sciences. 6 October 1999. Retrieved 2008-08-15. 
  34. ^ "Honorary Fellows". The Queen's College, Oxford. Retrieved 2008-08-15. 
  35. ^ "Class of 2002 - Fellows". American Academy of Arts and Sciences. 2002. Retrieved 2008-08-15. 
  36. ^ "Oliver Sacks, Awakenings Author, Receives Rockefeller University's Lewis Thomas Prize". Rockefeller University. 2002. Retrieved 2008-08-15. 
  37. ^ "Tufts University Factbook 2006–2007 (abridged)" (PDF (4.7 MB)). Tufts University. p. 127. Retrieved 2008-08-15. 
  38. ^ "COMMENCEMENTS; At Georgetown, a Speech on Education's Ills". The New York Times. 24 May 1992. Retrieved 2008-08-15. 
  39. ^ "Bard College Catalogue 2007–2008—Honorary Degrees". Bard College. Retrieved 2008-08-15. 
  40. ^ "Neurologist, peace activist among honorary graduands" (PDF). Gazette, vol. XXXII, no. 9. Queen's University. 7 May 2001. pp. 1, 2. Retrieved 2008-08-15. 
  41. ^ "Famed physician delivers Commencement address". Gallaudet University. 1 May 2005. Retrieved 2008-08-15. 
  42. ^ "2005 honorary degrees announced". University of Oxford. 14 February 2005. Retrieved 2008-08-15. 
  43. ^ "Doctores honoris causa" (in Spanish). Pontificia Universidad Católica del Perú. Retrieved 2008-08-15. 
  44. ^ "Oxford to confer doctorate on Manmohan Singh". New India Press. 15 February 2005. Retrieved 2008-08-09. 
  45. ^ London Gazette: (Supplement) no. 58729, p. 25, 14 June 2008.
  46. ^ Bloom, Julie (September 13, 2008). "Dr. Sacks's Asteroid". The New York Times. Retrieved 2008-09-14. 

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