September 8, 2004

Sacks Discusses Life Story, Career

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“He literally brings the patients he works with to life,” said Prof. Ross Brann, Near Eastern Studies, in his introduction of A.D. White Professor-at-Large Dr. Oliver Sacks, the renowned neurologist and best-selling author of The Man Who Mistook His Wife For A Hat and An Anthropologist on Mars, among other works.

Sacks told the audience of about 25 students and faculty about his career, some of his more interesting patients and the “chaotic nature” of his work’s development.

“I’ve never planned anything in my life,” he said. “And I’ve never known what will come next.” Sacks talked about his early attempts at becoming a chemist, saying “I was a lousy student. I didn’t like school very much, I didn’t like exams at all.” He recounted misadventures involving dropped food in a centrifuge, broken beakers and accidental contamination of a culture that he had been preparing for over a year.

“I think I was quite lucky not to kill myself and several people around me,” he said of surviving his college days in Oxford.

When he realized, with some strong wording from his superiors, that he was too clumsy for the laboratory and his mother was dissuaded that he could ever be a successful surgeon, he began neurological studies.

At this point, Sacks, garbed in his usual black periodic table t-shirt, began “bringing his patients to life” for the audience. He started off with the story of Virgil, a man blind from birth who, shortly before his wedding, had his sight restored through a simple surgical procedure.

“The gift of sight was a challenge to him,” said Sacks, “and very nearly a disaster.”

Virgil could not focus on processing the images that now bombarded him with every move. Tasks he could do easily before, such as a crossing the street or simply shaving, now proved nearly impossible unless he shut off the lights and relied on sound, smell and feel to guide him.

“We were asking him to change his identity,” said Sacks, of the operation to “heal” Virgil, who by the time of his marriage had become so fully developed as a blind man that the change to having sight forced him to change his entire way of thinking and sense of self and world. Sacks then discussed his “favorite” disorder, Tourette’s syndrome.

“If you have Tourette’s syndrome severely, it’s like you have a second personality,” he said, noting that many with the disease decline treatment, citing their feeling that treatment takes away from who they are.

“They are used to the peculiar energy, and movement, and speed of Tourette’s,” he said. Throughout his discussion of the case studies, Sacks emphasized that before treatment begins, a doctor must thoroughly understand the patient and the disease.

“One has to inhibit the medical impulse to fix, to do something and really feel out who the patient is.”

During a brief question-and-answer session, Sacks said that his case studies, which have been some of the most fascinating on record, usually find him: “I get a knock on the door, I get a strange letter, I get strange e-mails.” Though most he cannot answer personally, he does seek out a few of the more exotic cases and meets with the patients in his New York office.

“I prefer to see patients who are born with certain conditions or who have had them for many years,” he said, citing his special interest in how neurological diseases affect personality.

Mike Asaly ’07, who came to the discussion at the behest of his Alice Cook Residence Hall Director, said that he enjoyed the talk. He cited Sacks’ frequent use of vivid anecdotes and gesticulations–including acting out Tourette’s, Parkinson’s and others–as a highlight of the talk.

Asaly, who had never heard of Sacks before his RHD mentioned him, said he was interested in reading more about the stories Sacks presented. Asaly said Sacks’ talk “would make more sense after you read them.”

Sacks, one of 19 A. D. White Professors-at-Large, has written over nine books, a few of which are used as textbooks in Cornell courses.

Archived article by Michael Morisy
Sun Senior Writer