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Getting to know neurologist Oliver Sacks

by Melody M. Bomgardner
April 3, 2021 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 99, Issue 12


On PBS, famously shy Oliver Sacks opens up

This photo shows Oliver Sacks at home reading over documents.
Credit: Bill Hayes
Writing life: After Oliver Sacks turned 80, many of his essays examined consciousness and what it means to be alive.

Whenever a documentary about a scientist comes on TV, the Newscripts gang reaches for the popcorn, as we recently did to learn about the neuroscientist and writer Oliver Sacks.

Newscripts got a sneak preview of “Oliver Sacks: His Own Life,” an episode of the PBS series American Masters that will air on local PBS stations. Notably, Sacks joins Albert Einstein and James Watson as the only scientists who have been profiled in the series to date.

Many fans of Sacks first learned about him when he was played by Robin Williams in the 1990 movie Awakenings. Based on a book by Sacks of the same name, the movie depicts his 1969 work using l-dopa to treat catatonic patients in a New York City hospital. Long living with sleeping sickness, they woke from their locked-in states, but the transformation was only temporary.

Chemists in particular may recall his 2002 book Uncle Tungsten: Memories of a Chemical Boyhood. It chronicles young Sacks’s joyful discovery of metals, minerals, and the periodic table, inspired by his Uncle David, who operated a factory that produced tungsten filaments for light bulbs.

In the PBS documentary, Sacks, who died in 2015, recounts these times in his life along with many other episodes in his career. But it is also an intimate look at the personal passions, traumas, and struggles of a sensitive and gifted storyteller who was well known for being shy. While Sacks spoke at length with director Ric Burns, more than 25 friends and collaborators helped fill out the picture of his personality and drive.

This photo shows Oliver Sacks as a young man with his motorcycle in California.
Credit: Steeplechase Films
Fast and young: Oliver Sacks left London to get a fresh start in California, where he rode a motorcycle.

The opening and closing scenes feature Sacks surrounded by close companions, including Kate Edgar—his editor, collaborator, and friend of over 30 years—and writer Bill Hayes, his late-in-life love. Filming began after Sacks had submitted the manuscript for his memoir My Own Life and soon after he learned that his cancer was terminal.

The scenes pack an emotional punch but are also joyful. “Oliver never stopped questioning what it means to be here. He didn’t want to get out of Dodge before finishing his story,” Burns tells Newscripts. Sacks was the son of two doctors, and his London childhood was fractured by World War II. He and his brother Michael were sent to a boarding school that Sacks describes as hideous and abusive.

After the war, Michael developed schizophrenia. To escape his brother’s psychosis, Sacks retreated into a world of science and set up his own chemistry lab. Throughout his life, he carried the periodic table in his wallet and loved to give and receive elements for birthday presents.

Sacks treasured each element in his collection. Edgar tells Newscripts that for each element, “he really enjoyed its particularity—its melting point and boiling point.” She adds that “he would tuck them into little boxes. It was hilarious but also very moving how much he appreciated every part of nature.”

Michael’s life profoundly affected Oliver’s professional trajectory. “His Own Life” follows Sacks’s career as a neurologist with an unusual gift for connecting with patients who had chronic migraines, autism, Tourette’s syndrome, brain injuries, or other neurological disorders and differences. In the documentary, he explains that he wanted to know what it was like to live with these conditions—what did it feel like? How did his patients experience the world?

His voluminous case studies were not embraced by his fellow neurologists. They valued quantitative analysis, not qualitative descriptions. But as books such as The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat and Musicophilia show, careful observation can tell us a lot about the brain, neural plasticity, and even the origins of consciousness. Later in his career, Sacks won recognition from his peers for his scientific work, and he found his change in status to be extremely rewarding, he says in the film.

The episode also discusses Sacks’s addiction to amphetamines in his 20s and a nearly lifelong shame over his homosexuality. Sacks was unable to extend the compassion he had for his patients to himself, though he acknowledges, “At some level, we are all patients.”

“Oliver Sacks: His Own Life” will premiere on PBS on April 9 at 9:00 p.m. (EDT). It can also be viewed at and on the PBS video app.

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