On the Move (Sacks)

On the Move:  A Life
Oliver Sacks, 2015
Knopf Doubleday
416 pp.
ISBN-13: 9780385352543

When Oliver Sacks was twelve years old, a perceptive schoolmaster wrote: “Sacks will go far, if he does not go too far.”

It is now abundantly clear that Sacks has never stopped going. With unbridled honesty and humor, Sacks writes about the passions that have driven his life—from motorcycles and weight lifting to neurology and poetry.

He writes about his love affairs, both romantic and intellectual; his guilt over leaving his family to come to America; his bond with his schizophrenic brother; and the writers and scientists—W. H. Auden, Gerald M. Edelman, Francis Crick—who have influenced his work.

On the Move is the story of a brilliantly unconventional physician and writer, a man who has illuminated the many ways that the brain makes us human. (From the publisher.)

Author Bio
Birth—July 9, 1933
Where—Willesden, London, England, UK
Death—August 30, 2015
Where—New York City, New York
Education—B.A., M.D., Oxford University
Awards—(see below)

Oliver Wolf Sacks was a British neurologist, naturalist, and author who spent his professional life in the United States. For Sacks, the brain was the "most incredible thing in the universe" and therefore a valuable field of study. He became widely known for writing best-selling case histories about his patients' disorders, with some of his books adapted for film and stage.

Early life
Sacks was born in Willesden, London, England, the youngest of four children born to Jewish parents: Samuel Sacks, a Lithuanian Jewish physician, and Muriel Elsie Landau, one of the first female surgeons in England. Sacks had a large extended family, including the director and writer Jonathan Lynn and first cousins, the Israeli statesman Abba Eban, and the Nobel Laureate Robert Aumann.

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 Midlands where he remained until 1943. Unknown to his family, at the school, he and his brother Michael "subsisted on meager rations of turnips and beetroot and suffered cruel punishments at the hands of a sadistic headmaster."

He later attended St Paul's School in London. During his youth he was a keen amateur chemist, as recalled in his 2001 memoir Uncle Tungsten: Memories of a Chemical Boyhood. He also came to share his parents' enthusiasm for medicine, entering Queen's College, Oxford, in 1951. There he earned a BA degree in physiology and biology in 1956.

Although not required, Sacks chose to stay on for an additional year to undertake research, having been inspired by a course taught by Hugh Macdonald Sinclair. Sacks recalls,

I had been seduced by a series of vivid lectures on the history of medicine.... And now, in Sinclair's lectures, it was the history of physiology, the ideas and personalities of physiologists, which came to life.

Sacks then became involved with the school's Laboratory of Human Nutrition under Sinclair, focusing his research on the toxic and commonly abused drug Jamaica ginger, known to cause irreversible nerve damage. After devoting months to research, he was disappointed by the lack of help and guidance he received from Sinclair, so he wrote uphis research findings but stopped working on the subject.

As a result of his disappointment, he fell into depression, at which point his tutor at Queen's College and his parents suggested he take time away from his studies. In the summer of 1955, his parents offered to send him to an Israeli kibbutz where, they felt, the physical labor would do him good.

Sacks later described his experience on the kibbutz as an "anodyne to the lonely, torturing months in Sinclair's lab." He lost 60 pounds (27 kg), traveled around the country, scuba dived in the Red Sea, and began to reconsider his future. "I was 'cured' now; it was time to return to medicine, to start clinical work, seeing patients in London."

Medical training
Sacks began medical school in 1956 and for the next two and half years took courses in medicine, surgery, orthopedics, pediatrics, neurology, psychiatry, dermatology, infectious diseases, obstetrics and various other specialties. He followed up his formal training with a year-long internship at Middlesex Hospital, split between its medical and neurological units. However, after completing the internships in 1960, Sacks was uncertain about his future.

He left England and flew into Montreal, Canada, on his 27th birthday. He visited the Montreal Neurological Institute and the Royal Canadian Air Force (RCAF), telling them that he wanted to be a pilot. After some interviews and checking his background, RCAF told him he would be best in medical research. It was suggested that he take time to reconsider. He used the next three months to travel across Canada, deep into the Canadian Rockies, which he described in his personal journal, later published as Canada: Pause, 1960.

He next made his way from there to the United States where he completed a residency in Neurology at Mt. Zion Hospital in San Francisco, as well as fellowships in Neurology and Psychiatry at UCLA. It was during his time at UCLA that he experimented with various recreational drugs, describing his experiences in his 2012 book Hallucinations.

After completing his residency in neurology in 1965, Sacks relocated to New York to became professor of neurology at New York University School of Medicine, remaining with that institution for most of his career.

In 1966 he began consulting at chronic care facility Beth Abraham Hospital in the Bronx. He worked there with a group of survivors of the 1920s outbreak of encephalitis lethargica—sleeping sickness—who had been unable to move on their own for decades. The story of their treatment became the basis of Sacks's most well-known book, his 1973 Awakenings.

Sacks's work at Beth Abraham helped lay the foundation for the Institute for Music and Neurologic Function, and Sacks served as honorary medical adviser. The Institute honored Sacks with its first Music Has Power Award in 2000 and again in 2006. The latter commemorated "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."

From 1966 to 2007, Sacks served as an instructor and later as clinical professor of neurology at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine. He also held an appointment at the New York University School of Medicine from 1992 to 2007.

In July 2007, he 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" in recognition of his work in bridging the arts and sciences.

Sacks returned to New York University School of Medicine in 2012, serving as a professor of neurology and consulting neurologist in the center's epilepsy center.

In addition to his academic work, Sacks maintained a practice in New York City. He also served on the boards of The Neurosciences Institute and the New York Botanical Garden.

Beginning in 1970, Sacks wrote of his experience with neurological patients. His books have been translated into more than 25 languages. In addition, he was a regular contributor to The New Yorker, New York Review of Books, and various medical, scientific and general publications. He was awarded the Lewis Thomas Prize for Writing about Science in 2001.

Sacks's work was featured in a "broader range of media than those of any other contemporary medical author." In 1990 the New York Times referred to him as "a kind of poet laureate of contemporary medicine." His books use a wealth of narrative detail to focus on the experiences of patients who are often able to adapt despite neurological conditions usually considered incurable.

Awakenings, his most famous book (and the basis for the 1990 feature film), describes his use of the then new drug levodopa on post-encephalitic patients at Beth Abraham. The 1973 book was also the subject of the first documentary made for the British television series Discovery.

In other books, he describes cases of Tourette's syndrome and the various effects of Parkinson's disease. The title essay in his 1985 book The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat centers on a man with visual agnosia—the inability of the brain to interpret visual information—and was the subject of a 1986 opera by Michael Nyman.

His article "An Anthropologist on Mars," which won a Polk Award for magazine reporting, is about Temple Grandin, the autistic professor who instituted more human treatment methods in the beef cattle industry. Seeing Voices, Sacks's 1989 book, covers a variety of topics in Deaf studies.

In his book The Island of the Colorblind, Sacks wrote about an island whose residents have a high incidence of achromatopsia—total color blindness, low visual acuity, and high photophobia. He also describes the Chamorro people of Guam, many of whom suffer from a neurodegenerative disease known as Lytico-Bodig disease—a devastating combination of ALS, dementia and parkinsonism. Along with Paul Alan Cox, Sacks published papers suggesting a possible cause for the cluster—a toxin from the cycad nut transmitted by the flying fox bat.

In November 2012, Sacks released his book Hallucinations which examines why ordinary people sometimes experience hallucinations. "Hallucinations don't belong wholly to the insane, " he explains. "Much more commonly, they are linked to sensory deprivation, intoxication, illness or injury."

Sacks also wrote about the little known phenomenon called Charles Bonnet syndrome, which has been found to occur in elderly people who have lost their eyesight.

Sacks was the author of The Mind's Eye, The Oxcaca Journal, On The Move: A Life, and numerous articles in The New Yorker.

Sacks sometimes faced criticism from the medical and disability studies communities.

  • Arthur K. Shapiro, an expert on Tourette syndrome, called Sacks's work "idiosyncratic," relying too heavily on anecdotal evidence.
  • Researcher Makoto Yamaguchi thought Sacks's mathematical explanations in his study of the numerically gifted savant twins (The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat), were irrelevant.
  • British academic and disability rights activist Tom Shakespeare called Sacks "the man who mistook his patients for a literary career," while another critic called his work "a high-brow freak show."

Sacks responded, "I would hope that a reading of what I write shows respect and appreciation, not any wish to expose or exhibit for the thrill...but it's a delicate business."

Sacks declined to share details from his personal life until later in life. In a 2001 interview he discussed his severe shyness—describing it as "a disease" and a lifelong impediment to his personal interactions. Much later, in a 2015 Vanity Fair article, he talked about his earlier years in California when he indulged in

...staggering bouts of pharmacological experimentation, underwent a fierce regimen of bodybuilding at Muscle Beach (for a time he held a California record, after he performed a full squat with 600 pounds across his shoulders), and racked up more than 100,000 leather-clad miles on his motorcycle. And then one day he gave it all up—the drugs, the sex, the motorcycles, the bodybuilding.

He waged a lifelong battle with prosopagnosia—face blindness—which he discussed in a 2010 New Yorker piece. He also wrote about a near-fatal accident at 41, a year after the publication of Awakenings, when he fell and broke his leg while mountaineering alone.

Sacks lived alone, never marrying. In 2008, after nearly 35 years of celibacy, he entered into a relationship with writer and New York Times contributor Bill Hayes. In his 2015 autobiography On the Move: A Life, he addressed his homosexuality for the first time.

Illness and death
In 2006 Sacks underwent radiation therapy for a uveal melanoma in his right eye. He discussed his loss of stereoscopic vision caused by the treatment in a 2010 article, and expanded on it later that year in his book The Mind's Eye.

In January, 2015, metastases from the ocular tumor were discovered in his liver and brain. Sacks announced this development in a February New York Times op-ed piece and estimated his remaining time in "months." He expressed his intent to "live in the richest, deepest, most productive way I can," adding...

I want and hope in the time that remains to deepen my friendships, to say farewell to those I love, to write more, to travel if I have the strength, to achieve new levels of understanding and insight.

Sacks died from the disease on August 30, 2015, at his home in Manhattan. He was 82.

???? -  Fellow—Royal College of Physicians (FRCP)
1990 - Honorary Doctorate: Georgetown University
1991 - Honorary Doctorate: (3) Tufts University, New York Medical College, and College of Staten Island
1992 - Honorary Doctorate: (2) Medical College of Pennsylvania and Bard College
1996 - Member: American Academy of Arts and Letters (Literature)
1999 - Fellow: New York Academy of Sciences; Honorary Fellow—The Queen's College, Oxford.
2002 - Fellow: American Academy of Arts and Sciences (Humanities and Arts / Literature)
2001 - Honorary Doctorate: Queen's University (Ontario); Lewis Thomas Prize—Rockefeller University
2005 - Honorary Doctorate: 2) Oxford University and Gallaudet University
2006 - Honorary Doctorate: Pontificia Universidad Catolica del Peru
2008 - Honorary Doctorate: Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory
2008 - Commander of the order of the British Empire (CBE)

Sacks was named to the position "Columbia Artist" from Columbia University in 2007, a post that was created specifically for him. The title granted Sacks unfettered access to the University, regardless of department or discipline.

The minor planet 84928 Oliversacks, discovered in 2003, was named in his honor.

In February 2010 Sacks was named as one of the Freedom From Religion Foundation's Honorary Board of distinguished achievers. He described himself as "an old Jewish atheist." (Author bio adapted from Wikipedia. Retrieved 11/18/2015.)

Book Reviews
[D]eeply moving…. Dr. Sacks trains his descriptive and analytic powers on his own life, providing a revealing look at his childhood and coming of age, his discovery and embrace of his vocation, and his development as a writer. He gives us touching portraits, brimming with life and affection, of friends and family members…. This is a more intimate book than Dr. Sacks's earlier ventures into autobiographical territory…and the more he tells us about himself, the more we come to see how rooted his own gifts as an artist and a doctor are in his early family experiences in England and what he once thought of as emotional liabilities…[Sacks's] writing, which [he] says gives him a pleasure "unlike any other," has also been a gift to his readers—of erudition, sympathy and an abiding understanding of the joys, trials and consolations of the human condition.
Michiko Kakutani - New York Times

With On the Move, [Sacks] has finally presented himself as he has presented others: as both fully vulnerable and an object of curiosity…. The primary mark of a good memoir is that it makes you nostalgic for experiences you never had, and Sacks captures the electrifying discoveries he made, especially those in his early career, with vivid, hard-edge prose…. Sacks's ability to enact and celebrate intuition in medicine and precision in art is singular.
Andrew Solomon - New York Times Book Review

Marvelous.... He studies himself as he has studied others: compassionately, unblinkingly, intelligently, acceptingly and honestly.
Wall Street Journal

Intriguing.... When describing his patients and their problems, he is attentive and precise, straightforward and sympathetic, and he brings these worthy qualities to his descriptions of his younger self.
Washington Post

Remarkably candid and deeply affecting.... Sacks’s empathy and intellectual curiosity, his delight in, as he calls it, "joining particulars with generalities" and, especially, "narratives with neuroscience"—have never been more evident than in his beautifully conceived new book.
Boston Globe

[A] wonderful memoir, which richly demonstrates what an extraordinary life it has been.... A fascinating account—a sort of extended case study, really—of Sacks’s remarkably active, iconoclastic adulthood.
Los Angeles Times

[Sacks is] a wonderful storyteller.... It’s his keen attentiveness as a listener and observer, and his insatiable curiosity, that makes his work so powerful.
San Francisco Chronicle

(Starred review.) Sacks's writing is lucid, earnest, and straightforward, yet always raptly attuned to subtleties of character and feeling in himself and others; the result, closely following his announcement that he has terminal cancer, is a fitting retrospective of his lifelong project of making science a deeply humanistic pursuit.
Publishers Weekly

Sacks, now 81, writes of early school memories, first loves, and his desire to travel. He even utilizes entries from a journal he kept while traveling coast to coast on a motorcycle in the United States.... Frank and candid, Sacks sounds as though he's talking to the reader from across the dinner table. His story is a reminder that we create our own journeys. —Caitlin Kenney, Niagara Falls P.L, NY
Library Journal

The prolific physician's adventure-filled life.... Describing himself as quiet, shy, and solitary, [Sacks] nevertheless has become a man of many passions: science, medicine, motorbikes, and, for years, assorted drugs.... Despite impressionistic chronology, which occasionally causes confusion and repetition, this is an engaging memoir by a consummate storyteller.
Kirkus Reviews

Discussion Questions
Use our LitLovers Book Club Resources; they can help with discussions for any book:

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Also, consider using these LitLovers talking points to help start a discussion for On the Move:

1. After reading his autobiography, what do you think of Oliver Sacks? How would you describe him—both as a man and as a physician? How familiar were you with Sacks and his work before reading On the Move? Have you read any other books by Oliver Sacks? if so, how does this one compare?

2. During the London Blitz, Oliver and his brother Michael were sent to a boarding school where he was bullied and beaten. What effect, both good and bad, did this treatment have on his life? In what way does Sacks see those experiences as aiding him in his work with patients?

3. Talk about the various influences in Oliver's young life, including this brother's schizophrenia, that prompted him to enter medicine.

4. Sacks is open about his shyness. Elsewhere, he has likened it to a disease, although most of us would consider it simply a personality trait. What do you think? How did Sacks's shy personality shape his life?

5. Follow-up to Question 4: Given Sack's excessive shyness, how does one explain his years in California, during the 60s—his biker days, drug addiction, and obsessive body building? This immoderate risk-taking would seem at odds with a painfully shy individual. Or would it?

6. How would you describe Sacks's gifts as a physician?

7. What do you think of his mother's reaction to Sack's homosexuality? What part might her anger have played in Sacks's adult life? Although Sacks himself doesn't speculate, do you want to give it a try?

8. What do you make of Sacks's 35-year celibacy?

9. Sacks has been accused of exploiting his patients for gain and fame and for substituting empirical evidence with anecdotal evidence. If medicine is based on a strict adherence to hard data, what room is there for the "soft" patient narratives of Oliver Sacks?

10. Talk about what you found most surprising in this book—or inspiring, humorous, offensive, or anything especially memorable about Oliver Sacks and his life.

(Questions by LitLovers. Please feel free to use them, online or off, with attribution. Thanks.)

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