Biography of Oliver Sacks

Oliver Sacks was born in London, England, in 1933. The son of a surgeon and a general practitioner, Sacks attended a rural boarding school during World War II to avoid the threat of air raids. He earned his undergraduate and medical degree at The Queen’s College, Oxford, in 1958. In 1959, he accepted an internship at Mount Zion Hospital in San Francisco, then a residency as a neurologist at UCLA in 1962. He took to weightlifting in his college days, and in 1961 he set a California state record for performing a full squat with 600 pounds on his shoulders. After moving to the Bronx in 1965, Sacks was hired as a staff neurologist at Beth Abraham Hospital. He lived and worked as a practicing neurologist, author, and professor in New York City until his death in 2015.

Sacks' break into the mainstream came in 1973 with his second book, Awakenings, which describes Sacks’ experiences working with a ward of patients who had been almost completely immobile for decades. Recognizing that these patients were survivors of the “sleepy sickness” epidemic of the late 1920s, Sacks treats them with L-DOPA, an experimental new drug meant to treat Parkinson’s disease. Though not without its complications, the drug wakes these patients up, enabling them to move, talk, eat, dance, and sing. The book was adapted into a feature-length film in 1990, starring Robin Williams as Oliver Sacks.

His other published works include Migraine (1970), A Leg to Stand On (1985), The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat (1985), Seeing Voices: A Journey Into the World of the Deaf (1989), An Anthropologist on Mars (1995), The Island of the Colorblind (1997), Uncle Tungsten: Memories of a Chemical Boyhood (2001), Musicophilia: Tales of Music and the Brain (2007), The Mind’s Eye (2010), Hallucinations (2012), On the Move: A Life (2015), Gratitude (2015), and The River of Consciousness (2017), which was published posthumously.

In 1990, The New York Times called Oliver Sacks “a kind of poet laureate of contemporary medicine.” His writing about neurological diseases and disorders has been lauded for its gripping elegance, deep philosophical insights, and even deeper compassion for its subjects. Sacks informed his millions of readers on Tourette’s, Parkinson’s disease, autism, and a myriad of other neurological disorders, always placing the great humanity and potential of his patients at the forefront of his writing. He was a regular contributor to The New York Times, The New Yorker, The New York Review of Books, and The London Review of Books.

Although Sacks’ work was generally well-received, he also shouldered significant criticism for his “romantic” style of science writing. His blurring of the lines between art and clinical science was considered problematic by some. Many in the neuroscience community considered him a far better writer than a clinician, and a disability rights advocate in England once called Sacks “the man who mistook his patients for a literary career.”

Sacks, however, demonstrated very little interest in his own fame. In 2015, his partner, Bill Hayes, wrote that he had absolutely no knowledge of popular culture after 1955. He was by all reports a shy, humble, and intelligent man, who himself suffered from prosopagnosia (face-blindness). In his 2015 memoir, On the Move, Sacks came out as homosexual, writing that he had remained celibate for over 3 decades of his life. Hayes described him as “the most unusual person I had ever known.” He could be found almost every day in New York visiting the baby gorillas at the Central Park Zoo.

Study Guides on Works by Oliver Sacks