I cannot pretend I am without fear. But my predominant feeling is one of gratitude. I have loved and been loved; I have been given much and I have given something in return; I have read and travelled and thought and written. I have had an intercourse with the world, the special intercourse of writers and readers. –Oliver Sacks

An extraordinary man

By Roger Childs

If you haven’t read anything by Oliver Sacks, you are missing out. The famous neurologist who passed away in 2015 at the age of 82 had an amazing life. He was the fourth son of two Jewish doctors based in London and like two of his brothers, was destined for the medical profession. 

This was a man who was gay, a drug addict, a motorbike fanatic, a weight lifter who held world records, a prolific writer and a world renowned medical professional who was only recognised late in his life as a pioneer in the study of the many disorders of the brain.

He was also kind, humble, humorous, compassionate, empathetic, and meticulous in his research and record keeping. Much of his work with patients who suffered from a huge range of neurological problems became case studies in the books he wrote. One has perhaps the most original title of all time – The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat.

 Telling it as it was

Oliver Sacks: His Own Life is narrated principally by the man himself at a time when he knew he was going to die within a few months. However there are also plenty of observations and perceptions from medical colleagues, family, patients, and friends such as travel writer Paul Theroux and surgeon and writer Atul Garwande.

After qualifying from Oxford University, Sacks decided to leave Britain partly to get away from his mother who described him as an abomination when she found out he was gay. In his twenties he struggled with his sexuality, drugs, professional colleagues and relationships with others. He often sought solitude on his motor bike and once rode through the night from Los Angeles to see the sun rise over the Grand Canyon — a distance of nearly 805 km. 

Sacks is very honest about his life and warmly acknowledges those who helped through his tough times. One of these was Kate Edgar who became his editor and turned his rough hand-written manuscripts into wonderful books. 

If you are new to his work you could start with either his classic autobiography On the Move or his childhood obsession with science Uncle Tungsten: Memories of a Chemical Boyhood.

 An absorbing documentary

At a little under two hours this is a film that never drags. As well as the Sacks recollections and the reflections of those who knew him, there are plenty of historical photographs and film clips; visits to places where he worked; credible reconstructions of events and visual imagery related to the workings of the brain. There is also extraordinarily frank and intimate footage of his patients suffering, reacting and, in some cases, making breakthroughs in their behaviour.

Through the film Oliver Wolf Sacks comes across as a man of great humility who overcame his many problems and setbacks to become world famous as a pioneer clinical neurologist and highly readable author. It was only in the last 20-30 years of his life that he received the enormous respect he deserved.

Approaching death he reflected on his life on Earth.  Above all, I have been a sentient being, a thinking animal, on this beautiful planet, and that in itself has been an enormous privilege and adventure.

Oliver Sacks: His Own Life (111 minutes) is currently showing at the Shoreline.