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Conversations with America

Conversations with America: Oliver Sacks

David Schulman

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Oliver Sacks
(Elena Seibert)
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A couple of weeks ago in his weekly radio and YouTube address, President-elect Obama talked about the role science would play in his presidency. Obama said his administration would seek to ensure that facts and evidence reported by scientists are never twisted or obscured by politics or ideology. That's a stance dear to the heart of author and neurologist Oliver Sacks. As part of our series Conversations with America, we asked Sacks if he had memories of times of transition, like the one we're in between presidents.

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I arrived in America in a similar transition period, in November of 1960. Kennedy had been elected and was due to take office in a few weeks time. I loved Westerns, I loved Ansel Adams' photos. And one of the great attractions of America for me was the feeling of great open spaces, and mountains, and oceans and forests.

But I think one of the things that brought me to America 50 years ago was the notion of a very diverse society, and a relatively open one. In England, you were classified the moment you opened your mouth. Your accent and your intonation, they can't be disguised. You were instantly classified and categorized. If you're middle-class, as I am, you expect to be despised by the upper class and disliked by the lower class.

Kennedy, in his inaugural, in his beautiful speech, was so clear about the separation of church and state. I mean, I have a Bible by my bedside. I love the Bible, I love Bible stories. Science is not the whole of life. But they need to be kept separate.

There are a lot of books in this apartment. All of the books that we are facing are biology or natural history books at the moment. And very prominent to the left, in those pink covers, are the collected works of Darwin. I first read some of his botanical books when I was 13 or 14. I go back to him again and again. I love this vision of the world, which is one of change, and evolution, and adventure and depth, of enormous historical depth.

I'm wearing a Darwin T-shirt at the moment. This Darwin T-shirt contains a reproduction of the tree of life, as he first sketched it in 1837 in one of his notebooks, and as he was escaping from the notion of special creation to the vision of evolution.

My mother was a comparative anatomist, and sometimes when we had a fish she would point out the similarities between fish anatomy and human anatomy, how the little bones of the ear would develop from the jaws of fish. And so the notion of the continuity and evolution of life is a great wonder and delight to me. It excites me to think that I, and some of my organs, and my DNA are millions and billions of years old.

I've been very disturbed at the dismissal of reports on global warming, at the removal of the arsenic, and lead, and mercury. And at the general sort of environmental degradation and exploitation which has been going on.

If I had a chance to talk to President Obama, I would say that my special concerns were to do with the downgrading, and devaluation and dismissal of science over the last eight years. I'm a doctor, I'm the neurologist. I see patients with degenerative nerve disease, people with Alzheimer's, with Parkinson's, who are losing their nerve cells. I would show him some of my patients with Parkinson's disease, especially the younger ones in the 30s and 40s whose potential for life, for a productive and joyful life, is being blighted by the holding back of therapies which could be so important for them. The only possibility of getting any real regeneration in the nervous system, the only real therapeutic chance for them, the radical therapeutic hope, would come from the use of stem cells. But stem cell research has been virtually blocked in the last eight years here. Please, Mr. Obama, unblock it.

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Oliver Sacks was born in 1933 in London, England into a family of physicians and scientists (his mother was a surgeon and his father a general practitioner). He earned his medical degree at Oxford University (Queen's College), and did residencies and fellowship work at Mt. Zion Hospital in San Francisco and at UCLA. Since 1965, he has lived in New York, where he is a practicing neurologist. In July of 2007, he was appointed a Professor of Clinical Neurology and Clinical Psychiatry at Columbia University Medical Center.

In 1966 Dr. Sacks began working as a consulting neurologist for Beth Abraham Hospital in the Bronx, a chronic care hospital where he encountered an extraordinary group of patients, many of whom had spent decades in strange, frozen states, like human statues, unable to initiate movement. He recognized these patients as survivors of the great pandemic of sleepy sickness that had swept the world from 1916 to 1927, and treated them with a then-experimental drug, L-dopa, which enabled them to come back to life. They became the subjects of his book "Awakenings," which later inspired a play by Harold Pinter ("A Kind of Alaska") and the Oscar-nominated feature film ("Awakenings") with Robert De Niro and Robin Williams.

Sacks is perhaps best known for his collections of case histories from the far borderlands of neurological experience, "The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat" and "An Anthropologist on Mars," in which he describes patients struggling to live with conditions ranging from Tourette's syndrome to autism, parkinsonism, musical hallucination, epilepsy, phantom limb syndrome, schizophrenia, retardation and Alzheimer's disease.

He has investigated the world of Deaf people and sign language in "Seeing Voices," and a rare community of colorblind people in "The Island of the Colorblind." He has written about his experiences as a doctor in "Migraine" and as a patient in "A Leg to Stand On." His autobiographical "Uncle Tungsten: Memories of a Chemical Boyhood" was published in 2001, and his most recent book is "Musicophilia: Tales of Music and the Brain" (Vintage Books).

  • Music Bridge:
    Flight
    Artist: George Cromarty
    CD: Wayfaring Strangers: Guitar Soli (Numero)
More stories from our Conversations with America series

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