Oliver Sacks: The Poet Laureate of Modern Medicine

From The Writer’s Almanac:

It’s the birthday of  neurologist and writer Oliver Sacks. He was called “the poet laureate of modern medicine.” He devoted his career to studying people with unusual neurological disorders and writing about them so that they seem like real people and not just case studies.

His first book was Migraine, about migraine headaches, and it got good reviews. In the 1960s, he started working with survivors of the sleeping sickness epidemic that occurred between 1916 and 1927. These people had been in institutions ever since, still alive but in unresponsive bodies. Sacks noticed that many of them had reactions similar to those suffering from Parkinson’s disease so he decided to treat them with the drug Levodopa. Many of them woke up and were cognizant for the first time in 40 years….Sacks wrote Awakenings, a book about it, in 1973…. In 1990, it was made into a movie starring Robert De Niro and Robin Williams.

He went on to write more books in the same vein, including the best-selling book of essays, The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat, about people living with a variety of neurological disorders, and his book Musicophilia, about the sometimes bizarre connections between music and the brain and the ways in which music operates on everyone from people with severe neurological disorders to ordinary people who can’t get a tune out of their heads.

He wrote, “To restore the human subject at the center, we must deepen a case history to a narrative or tale; only then do we have a ‘who’ as well as a ‘what,’ a real person, a patient, in relation to disease.”

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