|Oliver Sacks, Greenwich Village, 1960|
"Oliver Wolf Sacks was born on July 9 1933 into a Jewish family in Cricklewood, north London, the youngest of four sons of a pair of wealthy physicians. He had an idyllic early childhood, waited on by an army of servants and spoilt by a vast extended family of remarkable intellectual brilliance.
This idyll was rudely shattered by the outbreak of war when young Oliver, then aged six, and his elder brother Michael, were evacuated to a Midlands boarding school called Braefield. There they were subjected to a regime of unrelenting cruelty by a headmaster who was “unhinged by his own power ... vicious and sadistic”.
The experience drove his brother mad and robbed Oliver of his faith in God. He was left with a host of phobias. His response was to take refuge in the unthreatening and impersonal world of science and mathematics. One of his aunts, a botanist, took him to Kew Gardens and the Natural History Museum, where dioramas of archaic plants and ferns, including the Jurassic cycads, became his “dreamscapes”, evoking “an Eden of the remote past.”
But what really caught his imagination was chemistry. It was one of his mother’s 17 siblings, his uncle Dave (or “Uncle Tungsten”) the owner of a light bulb factory in Farringdon, who opened his nephew’s eyes to the magical world of atoms and molecules. Back home, young Oliver was given a free rein by his busy parents to conduct his own experiments.
In a makeshift laboratory in the family home, he proceeded to produce clouds of noxious-smelling chemicals, making “volcanoes” with ammonium dichromate, setting fire to the garden and, on one occasion, burning off his brother’s eyebrows. At St Paul’s School, he shared his passion with Jonathan Miller who accompanied him when on one memorable occasion he dropped 3lb of pure sodium into Highgate Ponds.
Sacks read deeply, delving into 18th and 19th-century texts to understand how the sciences had evolved. His great heroes were Humphry Davy, Marie Curie and Dmitri Mendeleev, the inventor of the periodic table – a chemical chart which gave the young Sacks intimations of “the transcendent power of the human mind”.
But Oliver’s mother, an obstetrician-gynaecologist, was determined that her son should follow her into the medical profession and took pains to ensure that he became acquainted with anatomy by bringing home malformed foetuses for him to dissect, an exercise that filled him with revulsion. “She never perceived, I think, how distressed I became,” Sacks wrote, “and probably imagined that I was as enthusiastic as she was.”
Later, when he was 14, she arranged his first experience of dissecting a human corpse – the body of a girl . “Delight in understanding and appreciating anatomy was lost, for the most part, in the horror of the dissection,” he recalled. “I did not know if I would ever be able to love the warm, quick bodies of the living after facing, smelling and cutting the formalin-reeking corpse of a girl my own age.”
Yet, Sacks did become interested, and went on to take degrees in Physiology, Biology and Medicine at Queen’s College, Oxford, and at Middlesex Hospital Medical School, later taking junior medical posts at the hospital.
By this time he had become fascinated by neurology and in 1960 moved to Mount Zion Hospital in San Francisco to study the subject. In California he rode with the Hells Angels Motorcycle Club and won a state championship for weightlifting. "