Oliver Sacks died of cancer at his apartment in Greenwich Village New York on 30 August 2015, aged 82. He was the famous neurologist who wrote the best-selling books, ‘Awakenings’ and ‘The Man Who Mistook His Wife For a Hat’, which were based on case studies of his American patients.
He wrote the first part of his autobiography which he called ‘Uncle Tungsten’ after his uncle Dave who had a light bulb factory in Farringdon. The book is a delightful intertwined account of his family and his love of chemistry. It was while I was reading this in 2003 that I was startled to find that Oliver had lived in Kilburn.
In ‘Uncle Tungsten’ Oliver talks about his love of history and old photos:
I loved old photos of our neighbourhood and of London. They seemed to me like an extension of my own memory and identity, helping to moor me, anchor me in space and time, as an English boy born in the 1930s.
Marianne and I had recently published a book of old photos about Kilburn which I thought would interest Oliver. I was able to contact his friend and assistant of more than thirty years, Kate Edgar, who gave me his address and I sent him a copy of our book.
On 3 July 2003 Oliver wrote me a letter:
Yes, I received ‘Kilburn and Cricklewood’ – many thanks!
I looked through it straightaway (with sometimes almost unbearable feelings of remembrance and nostalgia), and now treasure it, along with other books of local London history and photography. Perhaps it is all the more vivid because I have been living in the States for over forty years, and hence my own memories of London are, to some extent, ‘frozen’ in a some of time-warp.
With best wishes,
I was struck by the synchronicity of Oliver sitting in New York reading our book about Kilburn, while at the same time I was in Kilburn reading his book about growing up in the area.
|37 Mapesbury Road, 2015|
Oliver Wolf Sacks, the youngest of four boys, was born at 37 Mapesbury Road Kilburn on 9 July 1933. His mother Muriel was a gynaecologist and one of the first female surgeons in England. Samuel Sacks was a much-loved and highly respected GP first in Whitechapel and then Kilburn, after the family moved there in 1930. Oliver had a very happy childhood with his large extended Jewish family of uncles, aunts and cousins. 37 Mapesbury Road on the corner with Exeter Road, was the family home until Samuel died in 1990 and the house was sold. Today it is the home of the British Psychotherapist Foundation.
When World War Two broke out six year old Oliver and his older brother Michael were sent away to a boarding school in Braefield near Northampton. This was a terrible eighteen months for Oliver as the boys were treated very badly and regularly caned by the sadistic head teacher. They returned to Mapesbury Road and Oliver went to The Hall school for a short time before going on to St Paul’s School in Hammersmith. There he became best friends with Jonathan Miller and Eric Korn (who became a well-known antique book dealer). Oliver and Eric would go to the Cosmo Restaurant in Finchley Road, where over lemon tea and strudel they listened to a young medical student-poet, Dannie Abse, reciting the poems he had just written.
Oliver spent a lot of time in the Willesden Library and read widely. He continued his love of chemistry and experimented in a laboratory he built in the house. He also developed and printed his own photographs. I felt an affinity with him as I also made ‘stinks and bangs’ and developed photos in my laboratory in the garden shed.
Oliver’s father was a strong swimmer and the boys were all taken at an early age to the Hampstead ponds and the Welsh Harp. On Sundays Oliver accompanied his father when he made house calls on his patients. Later Oliver realised that his interest in case studies derived from these visits and the detailed approach his father used. After studying medicine at Oxford University, Oliver qualified as a doctor at the Central Middlesex Hospital in December 1958. He worked there for a few years.
Life in America
The second part of his autobiography, ‘On The Move: A life’ was written in 2015 and largely covers his time in America. Oliver had read a lot about California and seen Ansel Adams’ beautiful photos of Yosemite. He left England in 1960 and went to San Francisco where he worked at Mount Zion Hospital before transferring to the neurological clinic in UCLA, (1961 to 1965). During the week he was a white-coated doctor, but on the weekends he changed into leathers, joined a motorcycle gang or drove alone for thousands of miles across America on his old BMW.
|Oliver and his BMW, 1961|
Oliver was a big man and he had previously worked out in the gym at the Maccabi sports club in Compayne Gardens. In America he decided to join the weightlifters at Muscle Beach in Los Angeles and he set a Californian record of a squat with 600lbs on his shoulders.
|Oliver's squat record of 600lbs, 1961|
Oliver moved to New York in September 1965 to begin work at the Beth Abraham hospital in the Bronx. He’d been taking very large amounts of amphetamines on the weekends. On New Year’s Day 1966 he decided to seek help and saw a psychoanalyst who told him he had to stop taking drugs. Astonishingly this therapy continued for 46 years.
In the Beth Abraham wards Oliver saw the 80 patients who were the survivors of an extraordinary ‘sleepy sickness’ pandemic from the 1920s. Many were frozen in catatonic poses; they could briefly move but then returned to their Parkinson-like state. Sacks knew that the drug L-dopa had been shown to have a positive effect on Parkinson sufferers and he applied for a licence to use it. He began administering it to a small group of patients in March 1969. Within a few weeks there were spectacular results. The patients literally ‘woke up’ and burst into explosive life after having been inanimate for decades. But then almost all of them ran into trouble and they reacted differently to the drug each time it was given. They also developed ticks, explosive movements or noises, like the people with Tourette’s syndrome. In August 1969 The New York Times carried the ‘awakening’ story, including the unpredictable ‘on-off’ or what the journalist called ‘the yo-yo effect’. Sacks published his results in The Lancet in 1970 but his American medical colleagues criticised him and cast doubt on his findings.
In 1972, while back in England and staying near Hampstead Heath he began to write an account of his L-dopa patients. Oliver said;
I spent each morning walking and swimming on the Heath, and each afternoon writing or dictating the stories of ‘Awakenings’. Every evening I would stroll down Frognal to Mill Lane and then to 37 Mapesbury Road, where I would read the latest instalment to my mother… She tolerated, with mixed feelings, my meanderings and ponderings, but ‘ringing true’ was her ultimate value. ‘That doesn’t ring true!’ she would sometimes say, but then, more and more, ‘Now you have it. Now it rings true’.
The death of his mother that November deeply affected Oliver. He said:
It made me feel that I must complete ‘Awakenings’ as a last tribute to her.
The book was published on 28 June 1973 to glowing reviews. Oliver was especially pleased by a letter from A.R. Luria, the great Russian neurologist, who praised Sacks’ use of clinical case studies, a practice which had fallen out of favour.
Following the large sales of ‘Awakenings’, Jonathan Miller said to Oliver, ‘You’re famous now’. But Sacks didn’t think this was true.
After several attempts, in 1989 a decision was made to make a feature film of ‘Awakenings’. Oliver had a meeting with the director, Penny Marshall, and Robert de Niro who was going to play the part of one of the patients. De Niro’s approach to acting was to study people in detail and he and Oliver spent time with postencephalitic patients in New York and London. Robin Williams was going to portray Oliver Sacks and they spent time ‘hanging out’ in New York. One day Oliver was startled when Robin exploded with an incredible playback of all the people they had met in the ward and using Oliver’s mannerisms, posture and speech. They both realised that Robin was ‘becoming’ Oliver and they decided that they needed time apart! The film was released in 1990 and received tremendous acclaim. Robert de Niro was nominated for Best Actor in the Oscars, and Robin Williams was nominated for Best Actor in the Golden Globes.
|Oliver and Robin Williams enjoying a joke on the set of Awakenings|
Oliver first talks about his homosexuality in ‘On The Move’. He had always been a very shy man and under UK law, homosexuality was a crime until the mid 1960s. His attitude became more relaxed after he moved to San Francisco, but he had no long-term relationships.
He was in London on his 40th birthday in July 1973 when he met an American student and they had a ‘joyous week together’ before the student returned to Harvard. But Oliver didn’t have sex again for the next 35 years.
Typically, Oliver tells an amusing story about this, when in 2007 he had a medical interview for a job at Columbia University. Kate Edgar was with him because he needed her to help him cope with his life-long inability to recognise faces, a condition known as prosopagnosia. The nurse said, ‘I have something rather private to ask you. Would you like Ms Edgar to leave the room?’ He replied, ‘Not necessary. She is privy to all my affairs’. He thought the nurse was going to ask about his sexual life, so without waiting for her question, he blurted out. ‘I haven’t had any sex for thirty-five years.’ The nurse said, ‘Oh, you poor thing! We’ll have to do something about that! I just wanted to know your Social Security Number!’
After this long period of celibacy, towards the end of his life he finally had a loving relationship with the writer Bill Hayes which began in 2008.
In 2006 Oliver lost his stereoscopic vision from a melanoma in his right eye. The cancer spread and in January 2015 it was discovered in his liver and brain. He wrote an article in The New York Times estimating that he only had months;
To live in the richest, deepest, most productive way I can. … I want and hope in the time that remains to deepen my friendships, to say farewell to those I love, to write more, to travel if I have the strength, to achieve new levels of understanding and insight.