The Day I Met Oliver Sacks

Oliver Sacks

Oliver Sacks died yesterday, Sunday, August 30th.

He was eighty two years old. Sacks was the author of several books about unusual medical conditions, including Awakenings (1973) which was based on his work with patients he came across in 1966 while working as a consulting neurologist in a chronic care public hospital in the Bronx, New York.

Forgotten

Many of these patients had already spent decades in strange, frozen states, like human statues and were forgotten. Sacks recognised them as survivors of the encephalitis epidemic that had swept the world from 1916 to 1927, and treated them with a then-experimental drug called L-dopa that woke them up after years in a catatonic (sleep-like) state. These patients then became the subjects of Awakenings – a deeply moving commentary on the human condition.

Santa Claus

I was fortunate to meet Oliver Sacks 25 years ago in early 1990 while attending a week-long workshop on brain research at Rockefeller University in Manhattan when one morning Sacks suddenly turned-up at the meeting. A big, tall, burly, bear of a man with a bushy white beard, he was the closest thing I’d ever seen to Santa Claus.

Awakenings – the movie

He looked tired so at the coffee break I asked him if he was busy writing another book. He told me that he had just come directly from the set of a movie (later called Awakenings) which was filming at the then still functioning Kingsboro Psychiatric Centre across the east river in Brooklyn and that a local Manhattan actor called ‘Bobby’ de Niro was playing the part of a patient called Leonard – a key character in the book and the movie.

Academy awards

Having already read and enjoyed the book I was intrigued to hear Sacks tell me that it was his first experience of being on a movie set and he was concerned, exhausted even observing the intensity with which De Niro was preparing for this role, so-much-so that when he (Sacks) once invited De Niro to join him for lunch during a brief break in filming, De Niro continued to remain in-character making any dinner conversation between the two impossible. Sacks was no doubt relieved to learn later that de Niro received an Oscar for one of his best performances and the film received two more Oscars for best picture and best screenplay.

Keep learning and don’t conform

Sacks led a rich and varied life which epitomised the principle; keep learning and don’t conform. In this regard, he was interested in patients with unusual and unexplained medical conditions and his writings brought an enlightened understanding to their suffering. His books provide consolation to the outcast, the underdog and the misunderstood and they will be cherished for many years to come. I look forward to developing this principle in greater detail in future posts, but in the meantime, my deepest sympathy goes to Oliver’s loved ones at this difficult time.

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