Sacks, Oliver Wolf

The Five Senses and Beyond: The Encyclopedia of Perception - Jennifer L. Hellier 2017

Sacks, Oliver Wolf

Oliver Wolf Sacks, MD, was a British American neurologist and best-selling author. He was a professor of neurology at New York University (NYU) School of Medicine, and his 12 books explored various neuroscience subjects, including The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat (1985), about various neurological disorders; Musicophilia: Tales of Music and the Brain (2007), which was made into a PBS Nova series called Musical Minds; The Mind’s Eye (2010), about vision; and Hallucinations (2012). Many of his books are largely collections of his patients’ neurological case histories and are known for being accessible and interesting to the lay public and neuroscientists alike. Sacks won many awards for his books including the Lewis Thomas Prize by Rockefeller University, which recognizes the scientist as a poet.

Oliver Sacks was born in London, England, on July 9, 1933, to physician parents. He received his medical degree at Oxford University in 1958 and completed his residencies and fellowship at Mt. Zion Hospital in San Francisco and at the University of California—Los Angeles. He moved to New York City in 1965 pursuing a career in research. After a year, Sacks realized that he did not like lab work and accepted a position at Beth Abraham Hospital in 1966 as a consulting neurologist until 2007. Sacks worked as a consulting neurologist at several hospitals during this period and began teaching neurology in 1975 at Albert Einstein College of Medicine. He was a professor of neurology at NYU from 1992 to 2007, Columbia University from 2007 to 2012, and then returned to NYU. Sacks died in 2015.

Sacks is known for his groundbreaking work in 1966 at Beth Abraham Hospital in the Bronx where he “awakened” a group of patients who had not moved or talked in decades. He discovered that these frozen patients had all survived encephalitis lethargica and their frozen state was due to the resulting brain damage. He experimentally treated them with L-dopa, a drug that had recently been discovered as a treatment for Parkinson’s disease. Sacks recounted this experience in his book Awakenings (1973), which was made into the 1990 movie Awakenings starring Robin Williams and Robert DeNiro.

Sacks appeared frequently on several news programs, and his essays and articles have been published in magazines, newspapers, medical journals, and in several “Best of” anthologies. He had many hobbies and interests including chemistry and the periodic table of elements, botany, stereoscopic vision, and swimming. Sacks had a visual disorder called prosopagnosia, which impaired him from recognizing people by their faces. He discussed this disorder and his experience of recently losing vision in one of his eyes in his book The Mind’s Eye. Sacks’s work was supported by the Guggenheim Foundation and the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation. He was an honorary fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Letters and the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, and held honorary degrees from many universities, including Oxford, Georgetown, Bard, Gallaudet, Tufts, and the Catholic University of Peru.

Emma Boxer

See also: Heightened Senses; Neurologist; Visual System

Further Reading

Sacks, Oliver. (2010). The mind’s eye. New York, NY: Alfred A. Knopf.

Sacks, Oliver. (2014). Oliver Sacks, M.D. Retrieved from