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One On 1: Oliver Sacks Makes Case For Life's Work

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Dr. Oliver Sack's canvas is nothing less than the mind and its occasional neurological quirks -- he observes them, is fascinated by them and then he writes about them. NY1's Budd Mishkin filed the following "One On 1" report.

After almost 50 years in science and medicine, Oliver Sacks still has the capacity to be wowed; like a case described in a letter he received in his Greenwich Village office this past summer.

"After the high holiday of Yom Kippur, the day of atonement, he sees Hebrew letters on the wall or any blank surface for about six weeks, and then they disappear," says Sacks.


Oliver Sacks is still a practicing neurologist and professor of neurology and psychiatry at Columbia. But he is known primarily as the best selling author who has written about the case studies of patients with unusual neurological problems.

Many of his 11 books have been translated all over the world. The memorably titled "The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat" was made into an opera. "Musicophilia" inspired a documentary. And "Awakenings" became an Academy Award nominated movie.

The New York Times has called him "the poet laureate of contemporary medicine." Sacks says he always gets permission from his patients before writing about them. Still, he describes it as a "delicate business."

"I think it's easy, in a way, and even inadvertently, unconsciously, to move from the appreciative and respectful to something which is disclosing," says Sacks.

A critic once wrote that Sacks was "a man who mistook his patients for a career." But Sacks says he won't write about an individual if he feels that person will be made uncomfortable, even if the patient has given consent.

"I have 10 or 12,000 charts on patients I've seen over the years, but I've perhaps written about 200 of them," says Sacks.

Among the cases covered in his latest book, "The Mind's Eye," are patients who suffer from prosopagnosia, an inability to recognize faces. Sacks knows the disorder well as he's had it for years.

"I think it's played a part in making me rather shy, and I don't like large groups. I'm not a good party person," says Sacks.

When he's not writing or seeing patients or going for his daily swim, Sacks is likely listening to or playing his beloved classical music.

"Bach partly appeals to me because of the exquisite order and symmetry," says Sacks.

His love of order is all the more interesting, because he's made his name writing about patients whose world is anything but orderly. His 1973 book "Awakenings" and the film based on the book is the story of Sack's use of the drug L Dopa and its effects on patients at Beth Abraham Hospital in the Bronx. The patients had been stuck in catatonic states for decades. L Dopa initially liberated them, but the positive aspects of the drug didn't last.

"And if I'd been seen as a kind of redemptive figure before, with this kind of...with this redemptive drug in my hands, now I felt the opposite," says Sacks.

The story was eventually read and seen around the world, but Sacks says the initial response in the medical profession was absolute silence.

"It was a book which had to be sort of concealed in brown paper covers and was mostly read by students and was seen as subversive," recalls Sacks.

Ever since he was a young boy growing up in London, Oliver Sacks has loved the periodic table. But his love of the periodic table was born out of a terrible chapter, recalled in Sack's book about his childhood "Uncle Tungsten."

He spent four years during World War II, from ages six through 10 at a boarding school outside London where he says he was ridiculed, starved and beaten.


"Capriciousness and chaos seemed to be the main animals. And chemistry and science in general, and the periodic table in particular, seemed solid," recalls Sacks.

His parents were both doctors. Sacks was still a young boy when his mother gave him a human fetus to dissect. He says his mother loved the subject of anatomy. He thinks the act was designed to share that love.

"There are ways of doing it. And being given a fetus is not a good way," says Sacks.

When he was 14, his mother invited him into the dissecting room to work on the cadaver of a fellow 14-year-old.

"It was a great shock to me to have someone on the postmortem table of my own age. And actually, I have in some way slightly disliked anatomy ever since," says Sacks.

After university, Sacks made his way to Canada and then California. He loved motorbikes, and he knew medicine, so he found himself giving medical consultations to a rather famous -- or infamous -- motorcycle gang Hell's Angels.

"These are my Hell's Angels days, this was 50 years ago," recalls Sacks, pointing at a picture.

In the mid 1960s he came to New York to began a fellowship in chemistry and pathology. But there was one problem.

"I dropped test tubes. I broke the ultracentrifuge. And finally, they said, 'Sacks, get out. You're a menace. Go see patients. You'll do less harm,'" says Sacks.

That rejection would eventually lead to seeing chronic patients, writing awakenings and other best sellers. But initially, it was anything but.

"I felt almost suicidal. I was a useless creature and worse, a menace," recalls Sacks.


Oliver Sack's curiosity about unusual medical and scientific phenomena has taken him around the world. But for 45 years he's lived here in the city that seems in direct contrast to his love of order.

"To my great surprise, I've come to love New York. Although I have ferocious moods in which I libel it or slander it terribly," says Sacks.

He's spent a career analyzing other people's ailments. In his most recent book, "The Mind's Eye," he writes in one essay about his own bout with a tumor in his eye.

"I'm so visually impaired, I can't read what I've done," says Sacks.

Sacks has covered the walls of his office with pictures of his favorite chemists, much like he did as a boy in his London bedroom. He has a special affection for Dmitry Mendeleev, the inventor of the periodic table that has never stopped inspiring him.

"I used to imagine Mendeleev as a sort of Moses, going up the mountain and bringing down the tablets of the periodic law," says Sacks. "It is partly a sense of revelation, an article of faith. And I think this may apply to all of science with me."

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