Oliver Sacks

Oliver Sacks had a longstanding relationship with the LRB, which had published him from the beginning (and from before the beginning in the Listener). He sent lots of different drafts of his pieces and waited for a final version to emerge. In 1984, Michael Neve, a lecturer at the Wellcome Institute for the History of Medicine, was asked to write about Sacks’s new book, A Leg to Stand On. The paper had published an early incarnation in 1982, a year of so before carrying the essay that was what Sacks called the ‘starter’ for The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat. A Leg to Stand On began with an accident Sacks had on a mountain in Norway, after which he temporarily lost all movement in one of his legs. Neve wasn’t persuaded by Sacks’s account. ‘Are you sure you want to go through with this?’ Karl Miller asked Neve when he had finished reading the piece. Neve was sure. ‘So what title are we to give it?’ A Leg to Stand On gave Neve his inspiration: ‘It’s Got Bells On.’ Sacks never wrote for the LRB again.

Musical Ears

Oliver Sacks, 3 May 1984

The late 19th-century neurologist Hughlings Jackson said that he had never been consulted for ‘reminiscence’ as the sole manifestation of epilepsy. But I have – in particular, for the forced or paroxysmal reminiscence of tunes, and, less commonly, of faces or scenes. Wilder Penfield was able to elicit such recalls – the forced replaying or reminiscence of what he called ‘fossil memories’ – by stimulation of the exposed cerebral cortex. I have had this described to me by my own patients – as a rather rare symptom in migraine and, quite frequently, in post-encephalitic patients ‘awakened’ by L-DOPA. And it may occur, as Hughlings Jackson notes, in the course of some seizures.–

The scientific study of the relationship between brain and mind began in 1861, when Broca, in France, found that specific difficulties in the expressive use of speech (aphasia) consistently followed damage to a particular portion of the left hemisphere of the brain. This opened the way to a cerebral neurology, which made it possible, over the decades, to ‘map’ the human brain, ascribing specific powers to equally specific ‘centres’ in the brain.

The Leg

Oliver Sacks, 17 June 1982

In 1974 I was tossed off a cliff. The circumstances were slightly absurd: I was on a mountain in Northern Norway, and I had a contretemps with a bull. It was a very isolated area, and no one knew where I was. I was alone, with a grossly injured and useless left leg. I thought I would die, but to my surprise I was saved. A reindeer-hunter found me, a posse carried me to the nearest Arctic village, ambulance and plane conveyed me to London. The next morning I was scheduled for emergency surgery.

Witty Ticcy Ray

Oliver Sacks, 19 March 1981

In 1884-5 Gilles de la Tourette, a pupil of Charcot, described the astonishing syndrome which now bears his name. ‘Tourette’s syndrome’, as it was immediately dubbed, is characterised by an excess of nervous energy, and a great production and extravagance of strange motions and notions: tics, jerks, mannerisms, grimaces, noises, curses, involuntary imitations and compulsions of all sorts, with an odd elfin humour and a tendency to antic and outlandish kinds of play. In its ‘highest’ forms, Tourette’s syndrome involves every aspect of the affective, the instinctual and the imaginative life; in its ‘lower’, and perhaps commoner, forms, there may be little more than abnormal movements and impulsivity, though even here there is an element of strangeness. It was well recognised and extensively reported in the closing years of the last century, for these were years of a spacious neurology which did not hesitate to conjoin the organic and the psychic. It was clear to Tourette, and his peers, that this syndrome was a sort of possession by primitive impulses and urges: but also that it was a possession with an organic base – a very definite (if undiscovered) neurological disorder.

Hallucinations provide privileged, if cryptic, glimpses into the deep structure of the brain.

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Life, Death and the Whole Damn Thing

Jenny Diski, 17 October 1996

Oliver Sacks seeks for meaning in the chaos of neurological deficit. He has that in common with his patient Mr Thompson, one of two Korsakov amnesiacs described in The Man who Mistook His Wife...

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Ian Hacking, 5 April 1990

For deaf people, especially for those born deaf, this has been the best of quarter-centuries. The happy events have not been medical but social. The deaf have been irreversibly granted their own...

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Colin McGinn, 23 January 1986

It could be said that Oliver Sacks put neuropathology on the literary map. His first book Awakenings, about the stunning effects of the drug L-Dopa on patients afflicted with a form of...

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It’s got bells on

Michael Neve, 21 June 1984

Oliver Sacks is the Jules Verne of the neurological interface. Knowledgeable about science, he also wishes to summon a host of readers to a great adventure, a journey to the centre of the body...

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