Dr. Oliver Sacks passed away this August from cancer at the age of 82. He was a prominent neurologist, but some of his greatest contributions were his books. His vivid narrative style made neurology and medicine accessible and appealing to the public. His stories were skillfully entertaining while simultaneously uncovering themes of memory, identity, and the human experience of illness.
In one of his most famous books, the Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat, Dr. Sacks recounts his encounters with patients with strange neurological disorders. Each case reads like a short story, which makes perfect reading material when it’s midterm season and you’re too busy to get into a long book. The disorders they have sound coldly clinical - conditions resulting in agnosia or aphasia or propagnosia, retrograde amnesia caused by Korsakov’s syndrome, polyneuritis leading to loss of proprioception. Yet Sacks paints a window into their personal lives and immerses the reader in the reality of such conditions in ways that detached clinical evaluations cannot.
At times whimsical, other times profound and creating a lingering sense of loss, Sacks brings these cases to life. He comically describes the titular patient, a distinguished professor of music who progressively loses visual perception due to a degenerative brain tumour, reaching out to grab his wife’s head and put it on as a hat. The wife, Sacks dryly observes, “looked as if she was used to such things.” Another case depicts a former sailor suffering from alcoholism-induced retrograde amnesia who is consequently stuck in 1945. He is baffled when shown the moon landings, and was horrified when shown his own reflection. Sacks observes a patient who does not recognize his leg as his own, and falls out of bed trying to push this disembodied, foreign leg out of sight. And so on, with each story presenting a novel, mesmerizing tale of bizarre conditions.
These cases also force us to examine how much of our identities are truly our own, and how much is simply due to the physical states of our brains. The man who mistook his wife for a hat was also an artist, and as his disease progressed, his art became increasingly abstract. His wife insisted this was artistic development, but Sacks questions if it is the tumor progression instead. Patients with neurosyphilis and Tourette’s displayed extraordinary imagination, wit, and liveliness, and they complained to Sacks when their drug treatments took these away. In many cases, the patients are not even aware that they are not “normal,” that something has been damaged. Things that we consider fundamental to our identities, such as creativity, our personalities, and even our perceptions – are they really ours? Although it’s easy to dismiss questions of the separation of body and soul as unnecessary and unresolvable, it’s still discomforting to comprehend how the way we experience life is dependent on our anatomy. Sacks realizes this, and writes that he questioned the nuns he worked with if they believed certain memory-impeded patients still had souls.
In our natural fascination and curiosity for oddities, it is easy for these cases to simply become entertainment. Sacks never loses sight of the humanity of these patients even while crafting stories for his readers. He states that sickness is a “quintessential human condition” because “animals get diseases, but only man falls radically into sickness.” As medicine today focuses more and more on patient-centered care, Sacks’s work is a perfect example of how to exercise compassion in the most difficult of cases.
For students aspiring for careers in healthcare and medical research, this book offers invaluable insight into what it means to go above and beyond as a doctor. The New York Times once called Sacks “a poet laureate of contemporary medicine.” And indeed, his talent for storytelling allowed him to provide invaluable glimpses into the world of neurology. As a book that is both engaging, easy to read, and deeply insightful, it is one of my best recommendations for science non-fiction.
Sophia Wen is a 3rd year student at Western completing an Honors Specialization in Pathology. Outside of the classroom, she has been involved in research projects ranging from neuroscience to cardiac physiology, and in various non-profit organizations in the London community. Sophia hopes to make science and research accessible and enjoyable to a large audience through writing and other publications. When not pondering over diseases, lab rats, or data, she likes to read, watch movies, run, and bake.