After the explosive release of Awakenings in 1973, Oliver Sacks waited over a decade to publish a second book. His next two books were released within a year of one another: A Leg to Stand On in 1984, and The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat in 1985.
The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat is by most counts Oliver Sacks’ best-known work. Organized into four parts, the book is comprised of 24 short essays that survey a broad and complex range of neurological disorders, from agnosia, aphasia, and Korsakoff’s syndrome to epilepsy, Tourette’s, and autism. Each of these “strange tales” centers on the story of an individual patient living with a peculiar and challenging neurological condition. Essays in the volume have gone on to inspire plays, rock albums, television specials, and even an opera.
Inspired by the great 19th-century medical writers, Sacks made it a goal to “restore the human subject” as the center of neurological case histories. “I feel compelled to speak of tales and fables as well as cases,” Sacks writes in the preface. “The scientific and the romantic in such realms cry out to come together… They come together at the intersection of fact and fable, the intersection which characterises (as it did in my book Awakenings) the lives of the patients here narrated.”
The Man Who spent 26 weeks on the New York Times Bestsellers List in 1986, and the paperback edition remained a top seller into March of 1987. Michiko Kakutani praised Sacks in her 1986 review in the Times, remarking that he “writes of these patients not as scientific curiosities but as individuals, whose dilemmas -- moral and spiritual, as well as psychological -- are made as complexly real to us as those of characters in a novel.”
Others were less kind. Colin McGinn for the London Review of Books griped that “it is quite unclear what Sacks is doing. For whom is he writing? What kind of writing is it? Is it intended as sober science or fanciful fiction? What is its relation to an orthodox text of neuropathology? Can it really be taken seriously?” John C. Marshall, a fellow neuroscientist, said that he found the book to be “insightful, compassionate, moving and, on occasion, simply infuriating.”
Scientists in the field generally had little patience for Sacks’ literary stylings, perhaps resentful that Sacks, an unknown staff neurologist at a hospice facility in the Bronx, had so quickly become the public face of contemporary neuroscience. However, the power and grace of Sacks’ writing are undeniably moving, and his work brought syndromes like Korsakoff’s, Tourette’s, and autism to the public in a new and more empathetic light. Today, The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat is hailed as one of the best works of clinical writing in the 20th century.