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Oliver Wolf Sacks, CBE, FRCPmarker (born 9 July 1933, Londonmarker, Englandmarker), is a British neurologist residing in New York Citymarker. He is a professor of neurology, psychiatry and writing at Columbia University, where he also holds the title of Columbia Artist. He previously spent many years on the clinical faculty of Yeshiva Universitymarker's Albert Einstein College of Medicinemarker.

Sacks is the author of several bestselling books, including several collections of case studies of people with neurological disorders. His 1973 book Awakenings was adapted into an Academy Award-nominated film of the same name in 1990 starring Robin Williams and Robert De Niro. Most recently, the author and his book Musicophilia: Tales of Music and the Brain were the subject of an episode of the PBS series Nova.

Early life and education

Sacks was the youngest of four children born to a North Londonmarker Jewish couple: Samuel Sacks, a physician, and Muriel Elsie Landau, one of the first female surgeons in England. Sacks had a large extended family, and among his first cousins are Israeli statesman Abba Eban, writer and director Jonathan Lynn, and economist Robert Aumann. Two of Sacks's elder brothers, David and Marcus, were to become general medical practitioners in their own right.

When Sacks was six years old, he and his brother Michael were evacuated from London to escape The Blitz, retreating to a boarding school in the Midlandsmarker, where he remained until 1943. He attended St Paul's Schoolmarker, London, UK. During his youth, he was a keen amateur chemist, as recalled in his memoir Uncle Tungsten. He also learned to share his parents' enthusiasm for medicine and entered The Queen's Collegemarker, Oxford Universitymarker in 1951, from which he received a Bachelor of Arts (BA) in physiology and biology in 1954. At the same institution, in 1958 he went on to incept as a Master of Arts and earn an BM BCh, thereby qualifying to practice medicine.

Professional life

After converting his British qualifications to American recognition (i.e., an MD as opposed to BM BCh), Sacks moved to New York, where he has lived and practiced neurology since 1965.

Sacks began consulting at chronic care facility Beth Abraham Hospital (now Beth Abraham Health Services) in 1966. At Beth Abraham, Sacks worked with a group of survivors of the 1920s sleeping sickness, encephalitis lethargica, who had been unable to move on their own for decades. These patients and his treatment of them were the basis of Sacks' book Awakenings.

Sacks served as an instructor and later clinical professor of neurology at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine from 1966 to 2007, and also held an appointment at New York University Medical School from 1999 to 2007. In July 2007, Sacks joined the faculty of Columbia University Medical Center as a professor of neurology and psychiatry. At the same time, he was appointed Columbia University's first Columbia University Artist at the university's Morningside campus, recognizing the role of his work in bridging the arts and sciences.

Since 1966, Sacks has served as a neurological consultant to various nursing homes in New York City run by the Little Sisters of the Poor, and from 1966 to 1991, he was a consulting neurologist at Bronx State Hospital.

Sacks' work at Beth Abraham helped provide the foundation on which the Institute for Music and Neurologic Function (IMNF) is built; Sacks is currently an honorary medical advisor. In 2000, IMNF honored Sacks with its first Music Has Power Award. The IMNF again bestowed a Music Has Power Award on Sacks in 2006 to commemorate "his 40 years at Beth Abraham and honor his outstanding contributions in support of music therapy and the effect of music on the human brain and mind".

Sacks remains a consultant neurologist to the Little Sisters of the Poor, and maintains a practice in New York City. He serves on the boards of the Neurosciences Research Foundation and the New York Botanical Garden.

Literary work

Since 1970, Oliver Sacks has been writing books about his experience with neurological patients.Sacks's writings have been translated into over twenty five languages. In addition to his books, Sacks is a regular contributor to The New Yorker and The New York Review of Books, as well as other medical, scientific, and general publications. He was awarded the Lewis Thomas Prize for Writing about Science in 2001.

Sacks's work has been featured in a "broader range of media than those of any other contemporary medical author" and in 1990, The New York Times said he "has become a kind of poet laureate of contemporary medicine". His descriptions of people coping with and adapting to neurological conditions or injuries often illuminate the ways in which the normal brain deals with perception, memory and individuality.

Sacks considers that his literary style grows out of the tradition of 19th-century "clinical anecdotes," a literary style that included detailed narrative case histories. He also counts among his inspirations the case histories of the Russian neuropsychologist A. R. Luria.

Sacks describes his cases with a wealth of narrative detail, concentrating on the experiences of the patient (in the case of his A Leg to Stand On, the patient was himself). The patients he describes are often able to adapt to their situation in different ways despite the fact that their neurological conditions are usually considered incurable. His most famous book, Awakenings, upon which the 1990 feature film of the same name is based, describes his experiences using the new drug L-Dopa on Beth Abraham post-encephalitic patients. Awakenings was also the subject of the first documentary made (in 1974) for the British television series Discovery.

In his other books, he describes cases of Tourette syndrome and various effects of Parkinson's disease. The title article of The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat is about a man with visual agnosia and was the subject of a 1986 opera by Michael Nyman. The title article of An Anthropologist on Mars, which won a Polk Award for magazine reporting, is about Temple Grandin, a professor with high-functioning autism. Seeing Voices, Sacks' 1989 book, covers a variety of topics in deaf studies.

In his book The Island of the Colorblind Sacks describes the Chamorro people of Guammarker, who have a high incidence of a neurodegenerative disease known as Lytico-bodig (a devastating combination of Amyotrophic lateral sclerosis ALS, dementia, and parkinsonism). Along with Paul Cox, Sacks has published papers suggesting a possible environmental cause for the cluster, namely the toxin beta-methylamino L-alanine (BMAA) from the cycad nut accumulating by biomagnification in the flying fox bat.

Sacks's work is used by universities around the world, in courses as diverse as medical ethics, anthropology, writing, chemistry, music, and philosophy. However, he has sometimes faced criticism in the medical and disability studies communities. During the 1970s and 1980s, his book and articles on the "Awakenings" patients were criticized or ignored by much of the medical establishment, on the grounds that his work was not based on the quantitative, double-blind study model. His account of abilities of autistic savants has been questioned by the researcher Makoto Yamaguchi in Ref, and Arthur K. Shapiro—described as "the father of modern tic disorder research"—referring to Sacks celebrity status and that his literary publications received greater publicity than Shapiro's medical publications, said he is "a much better writer than he is a clinician". Howard Kushner's A Cursing Brain? : The Histories of Tourette Syndrome, says Shapiro "contrasted his own careful clinical work with Sacks's idiosyncratic and anecdotal approach to a clinical investigation". More sustained has been the critique of his political and ethical positions. Although many characterize Sacks as a "compassionate" writer and doctor, others feel he exploits his subjects. Sacks was called "the man who mistook his patients for a literary career" by British academic and disability-rights activist Tom Shakespeare, and one critic called his work "a high-brow freak show". Such criticism was echoed in a review of the movie The Royal Tenenbaums, with the reviewer describing Bill Murray's comic portrayal of "an Oliver Sacks-like neurologist who snickers openly at his weirdo subjects". Sacks himself has stated "I would hope that a reading of what I write shows respect and appreciation, not any wish to expose or exhibit for the thrill," he sighs, "but it's a delicate business."


Since 1996, Sacks has been a member of The American Academy of Arts and Letters (Literature). In 1999, Sacks became a Fellow of the New York Academy of Sciences. Also in 1999, he became an Honorary Fellow at The Queen's College, Oxfordmarker. In 2002, he became Fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciencesmarker (Class IV—Humanities and Arts, Section 4—Literature). and he was awarded the 2001 Lewis Thomas Prize by Rockefeller Universitymarker.

Sacks has been awarded honorary doctorates from the College of Staten Islandmarker (1991), Tufts Universitymarker (1991), New York Medical College (1991), Georgetown Universitymarker (1992), Medical College of Pennsylvania (1992), Bard Collegemarker (1992), Queen's Universitymarker (Ontario) (2001), Gallaudet Universitymarker (2005), University of Oxfordmarker (2005), Pontificia Universidad Católica del Perúmarker (2006), and Cold Spring Harbor Laboratorymarker (2008).

Oxford Universitymarker awarded him an honorary Doctor of Civil Law degree in June 2005.

He was made an honorary member of the honors society of Saint John's University on 5 October 2008.

Sacks was appointed Commander of the Order of the British Empire (CBE) in the 2008 Queen's Birthday Honours.

Asteroid 84928 Oliversacks, discovered in 2003 and in diameter, was named in his honor.


Sacks has been a longtime resident of City Island, Bronxmarker.



  1. a criticism of The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat
  2. Kushner, HI. A Cursing Brain? : The Histories of Tourette Syndrome. Harvard University Press, 2000, p. 205. ISBN 0-674-00386-1
  3. Kushner (2000), p. 204
  4. Golden, Tim. "Bronx Doctor Has Best Seller, Hit Movie and No Job", The New York Times, February 16, 1991. Accessed October 15, 2009. "Four white lab coats were known to be somewhere around his red-shingled house on City Island in the Bronx, just not anywhere in particular."

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