• Share
  • Read Later

The doctor is in. it took more than 20 years, but after six successful books and numerous articles by and about him, neurologist Oliver Sacks, 61, has arrived (all 210 burly pounds of him) as the latest two-cultures hero, a man of science as well as a man of letters. W.H. Auden detected the budding synthesis in Sacks' work in the early 1970s, when he declared Sacks' book Awakenings a masterpiece of medical literature. Hollywood grasped this high concept two decades later. Awakenings, the movie, starred Robin Williams as the dedicated doctor and Robert DeNiro as a patient temporarily freed from years of catatonia by Sacks' experimental use of the drug L-dopa.

Sacks has since had to cope with the symptoms of contact celebrity. He receives 15,000 letters a year; invitations and requests arrive daily. An assistant who handles this traffic is currently turning down lecture bookings for the rest of 1995. A good chunk of Sacks' time goes to the BBC, which is preparing a series about him.

There are also Sacksian spin-offs: Harold Pinter's 1982 play A Kind of Alaska was inspired by Awakenings. Both a Michael Nyman opera and Peter Brook's The Man Who are theatrical versions of Sacks' 1985 best seller The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat; the Brook play opens at the Brooklyn Academy of Music this week.

Sacks' latest book should not be lost in the commotion. An Anthropologist on Mars is still another collection of wide-ranging essays that he calls "neurohistories," an anecdotal form that combines science, sympathy and old-fashioned storytelling. Where most clinicians study at arm's length a case of amnesia, say, or autism or agnosia (inability to recognize a word or a shape), the British-born physician tries to see through the eyes of the patient. "The study of disease," says Sacks, "demands the study of identity, the inner worlds that patients, under the spur of illness, create."

This is a bold statement in an age that seeks to reduce imagination to a set of neurological functions. Creativity is not a word that comes easily to many physicians, but Sacks strongly believes that invention is a measure, if not a definition, of health. His own robust literary output flows from different sources. "It's the mixture of physiology with poetic and often tragic accounts of the subjective aspects of being ill, of neurological syndromes which fascinates the two halves of me," he says. "I might go to an Ibsen play one night and a physiology meeting the next." Now those two halves have come together. "It's the relation between these two centers that is sometimes complementary."

In the most illustrative essay in Anthropologist, Sacks introduces Temple Grandin, who in her childhood was found to have Asperger's syndrome, a high-function form of autism. Grandin now holds a Ph.D. in animal science and a teaching post at Colorado State University. She is well known not only on the medical-conference circuit for her insights into Asperger's but also in the meat-packing business for her advice on the humane treatment and disposal of livestock. Among her contributions is a design for a curved slaughterhouse ramp that is said to reduce animal anxiety by keeping hidden the high-tech poleax that dispatches the critters.

  1. Previous Page
  2. 1
  3. 2
  4. 3