Thursday, 15 September 2016

On the Move: A Life by Oliver Sacks

British Neurologist and writer Oliver Sacks (1933-2015) had the knack of turning complicated neurological case histories into fascinating books, while still sensitively emphasising his patients as people.

Oliver Sacks reflects on his life and writing in his final book, a memoir.

Sacks was a great storyteller, and shares the fascinating background of some of his best- selling case histories such as The Awakenings, which was later made into an excellent film with Robin Williams playing the part of Sacks. The Awakenings describes a group of post encephalitic, catatonic patients languishing in a ward in New York, whom Sacks trialled with the then new drug levodopa, resulting in their near-miraculous waking up and then heartbreaking complications.

In another book, The Man Who Mistook his Wife for a Hat, Sacks explains neurological conditions by presenting case histories of individuals he cared for with Tourette’s and autistic savant syndromes, memory and perception problems, and epilepsy. Sacks himself suffered from a condition called prosopagnosia or face blindness, to the extent that he could not even recognise his own reflection in the mirror.

Sack’s writing was always humane, compassionate, and able to convey quirks of the human brain in lay terms.

Sacks also recounts how he was pressured to become a doctor from an early age, having physicians for parents as well as two of his older siblings. As a young medical student he was so fearful of telling his mother he was bottom in his anatomy class he decided to sit a prestigious Oxford scholarship, to which he arrived late and drunk, left early, and yet won the prize for his writing skills.

His great enthusiasm for trying new experiences is evident in stories of various chemical experiments gone wrong, severe injuries whilst power lifting, hiking and motorcycling, as well as a crippling drug addiction.

If this book whets your appetite for more, Sacks has written a dozen books on subjects such as migraines, music, Tourette’s syndrome and hallucinations.

Oliver Sacks was brilliant yet flawed, extremely shy, socially awkward and caring, and On the Move depicts a fascinating life and man.

Reviewed by Katrina


  1. Thanks, Katrina, for the review. Going to read the book now. Didn't realise Sacks was a doctor himself. Looking forward to learning more about his life

    1. Thanks Katjenka, he also wrote in more detail about his early life in Uncle Tungsten (2001).