Oliver Sacks
Professor of Neurology & Psychiatry, Columbia University

Oliver Sacks on His Early Encounters With Sleeping Sickness

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Oliver Sacks remembers his first encounter with sleeping sickness.

Oliver Sacks

Oliver Sacks is a psychiatrist and neurologist best known for his collections of case histories from the far borderlands of neurological experience, The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat and An Anthropologist on Mars, in which he describes patients struggling to live with conditions ranging from Tourette's syndrome to autism, parkinsonism, musical hallucination, epilepsy, phantom limb syndrome, schizophrenia, retardation, and Alzheimer's disease.

In 1966, Dr. Sacks began working as a consulting neurologist for Beth Abraham Hospital in the Bronx, a chronic care hospital where he encountered an extraordinary group of patients, many of whom had spent decades in strange, frozen states, like human statues, unable to initiate movement. He recognized these patients as survivors of the great pandemic of sleepy sickness that had swept the world from 1916 to 1927, and treated them with a then-experimental drug, L-dopa, which enabled them to come back to life. They became the subjects of his book Awakenings, which later inspired a play by Harold Pinter and the Oscar-nominated feature film called Awakenings.

In July of 2007, Sacks was appointed Professor of Neurology and Psychiatry at Columbia University Medical Center, and he was also designated the university's first Columbia University Artist.  Sacks Latest book Musicophilia: Tales of Music and the Brain (2007), was has been Revised and Expanded in a new edition that was released in September of 2008.


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