Sunday, July 09, 2017

Oliver Sacks: the poet laureate of medicine

It’s the birthday of the man called “the poet laureate of medicine,” neurologist and writer Oliver Sacks (books by this author), born in London in 1933. He devoted his career to studying people with unusual neurological disorders, and writing about them so that they seem like real people and not just case studies. His first book was Migraine (1970), about migraine headaches, and it got good reviews. And then, in the 1960s, he started working with survivors of the sleeping sickness epidemic that occurred between 1916 and 1927. These people had been in institutions ever since, still alive but in unresponsive bodies. Sacks noticed that many of them had reactions similar to those suffering from Parkinson’s disease, so he decided to treat them with the drug Levodopa. Many of them woke up and were cognizant for the first time in 40 years. But it was extremely stressful for a number of them to have lost so much time like that, and most of them went back to sleep. Sacks wrote a book about it, Awakenings (1973). He said, “Awakenings came from the most intense medical and human involvement I have even known, as I encountered, lived with, these patients in a Bronx hospital, some of whom had been transfixed, motionless, in a sort of trance, for decades. Migraine was still in the medical canon, but here I took off in all directions — with allegory, philosophy, poetry, you name it.” In 1990, it was made into a movie starring Robert De Niro and Robin Williams.

He went on to write several more books in the same vein, including the best-selling book of essays The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat (1985), about people living with a variety of neurological disorders, and his book Musicophilia (2007), about the sometimes bizarre connections between music and the brain, and the ways in which music operates on everyone from people with severe neurological disorders to ordinary people who can’t get a tune out of their heads.

He wrote: “To restore the human subject at the center, we must deepen a case history to a narrative or tale; only then do we have a ‘who’ as well as a ‘what,’ a real person, a patient, in relation to disease.”