Oliver Sacks on His Early Encounters With Sleeping Sickness

Oliver Sacks remembers his first encounter with sleeping sickness.
  • Transcript


Question: What led to your famous sleep sickness pandemic discovery?

Oliver Sacks:  I think the movie was somewhat misleading in this regard. In fact, the hospital had been opened in 1919, 1920 for the first victims of what was then an epidemic sweeping across the world. And some of them had been there for 40 years or more.

Although, when I walked in and I saw these motionless, speechless transfixed figures, sometimes in very strange postures, this was completely outside my experience or imagination. I’d never seen anything like this, in a sense, these fossilized human beings.

At that time, there was no medical approach which was of any use to them, although it had always been observed that they could move, sometimes speak under special circumstances, and among these was when music was present.

Recorded on: Sep 4, 2008