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Neurological Notes Reviews

Uncle Tungsten: Memories of a Chemical Boyhood
Oliver Sacks, Vintage Books, NY, NY, 2001.

When Oliver Sacks was just 14 years old, it was already decided that he would become a doctor, like his parents and brothers then in medical school. His fascination with the sciences prepared him in several ways for that career in medicine. Almost the whole of Uncle Tungsten is devoted to his researches and devotion to one science or the other. But by 1947, the world was about to turn in a different direction. His play time with scientific experiments was about to be curtailed.

In the latter pages of this book, Sacks remembered a telling incident: “I was with my parents in our new Humber touring the South of France. Sitting in the back, I was talking about thallium, rattling on and on and on about: how it was discovered, along with indium, in the 1860s, by the brilliantly color green line it its spectrum; how some its salts, when dissolved, could form solutions nearly five times as dense as water; how thallium indeed was the platypus of the elements, with paradoxical qualities that had caused uncertainty about it placement in the periodic table––soft, heavy, and fusible like lead, chemically akin to gallium and indium, but dark oxides like those of manganese and iron, and colorless sulfates like those of sodium and potassium. Thallium salts, like silver salts, were sensitive to light––one could have a whole photography based on thallium! The thallous ion, I continued, had great similarities to the potassium ion––similarities which were fascinating in the laboratory or factory, but utterly deadly to the organism, for, biologically almost indistinguishable from potassium, thallium would slip into all the roles and pathways of potassium, and sabotage the how-helpless organism from within. As I babbled on, gaily, narcissistically, blindly, I did not notice that my parents, in the front seat, had fallen completely silent, their faces bored, tight, and disapproving––until, after twenty minutes, they could bear it no longer, and my father burst out violently: ‘Enough about thallium!’”

This vignette by Oliver Sacks provides several hints about the doctor as a young man and even as an older one. It also can give the potential reader clear ideas about what may be ahead if he/she dares to study Uncle Tungsten. [For the uninitiated tungsten is an element, symbol W and atomic number 74.]

This autobiography of an extraordinary man is a lovely book. But, it is not light reading. It is about a brilliant soul’s early years and largely self-directed studies in the sciences. Those especially involved chemistry and metallurgy, elements and minerals, magnetism, electricity and photography. Much study was done from the historical side, but Oliver was keen to create his own laboratory and do first-hand experiments into all manner of things scientific. He followed in the steps of great chemists and philosophers of earlier eras as well as scientist-businessmen relatives, one of whom was nicknamed Uncle Tungsten.

Sacks was not only fascinated with the sciences, he also became obsessed at times. He found refuge in science, especially following on the traumas of World War II and being farmed out away from London to a school run by a tyrant during the conflict.

Sacks researched and romanced the sciences. He was in rapture reading about Dalton’s atoms. Mendeleev’s periodical table of elements was “the most beautiful thing I had ever seen.”

Dr. Sacks’s book suits budding as well as elder scientists. It gives a neat and readable chronology of scientific developments from the late eighteenth century into the middle of the twentieth. But, it is not for the fainthearted.

Along the way, the reader is offered side-trips into Sacks’s family, Britain at war, the schools and museums of the day, and Oliver’s inner life. But, be assured that Uncle Tungsten is really about the early training and development of a Scientist.

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Oliver Sacks
Vintage Books, NY, NY, 1999.

In 1966, Dr. Sacks moved into an apartment a hundred yards from Beth Abraham Home for Incurables, which he disguised as Mount Carmel in his book. There, he spent 12 to 15 hours a day with his patients. Following his example, the staff also got more involved working with residents who were afflicted with the “sleeping sickness” which appeared in epidemic proportions after WWI. At that time, the Home housed around 80 patients some for 40 years: half were barely functional, while the rest were frozen in silence like ghosts or zombies.

Inevitably, Sacks recognized similarities between his patients and others with Parkinsonian illnesses who were receiving treatment elsewhere. Sacks began treating them on an experimental basis with the drug called L-Dopa. While he often got caught in the minutiae of trying to titrate dosage to effect, his investment with patients was keen and lasting. Sacks’s experiments led to phenomenal, although temporary, improvements in many patients. Suddenly, many patients came back to life.

While raising the dead, Dr. Sacks also stirred violent reactions of physician colleagues. Some found “incredible and intolerable” his successes in returning to life many who had been asleep for years decades.

A recurring and very important theme in Awakenings is that true physicians must consider disease beyond the physical level. Sacks admits that this idea has  succumbed to the mechanical and technical approaches of modern medicine. He might have said that he also at times succumbed to the simplistic biology and chemical pictures of diseases. Still, he had to return to “The thoughts which are most difficult to grasp or express are those which touch on this forbidden region and re-awaken in us our strongest denials and our most profound intuitions.”

Oliver Sacks had no fear of addressing modern medicines shortcomings, as well as his own. But, the Good Doctor seemed to be caught between two worlds: trying to act as modern investigator seeking a magical drug while also being drawn into the fully human element of the illnesses, losses and tragedies of his woeful patients.

Sacks maneuvers between science and humanity repeatedly in Awakenings. Fortunately, he takes much time to give detailed histories of a score of the sleeping sick. The sleepers, paradoxically, bring the book to life.

For the rest, it seems to this reader-reviewer that Dr. Sacks overlooked possibly THE major element in the recoveries of his forlorn charges. That element was Sacks himself who believed, invested, and persisted against many obstacles to bring life and hope and awakenings – however transient – to some who might have been called “the least of these.” Oliver Sacks was surely a “healing presence” at the Home for Incurables.

Awakenings is not an easy read both because of diversions into scientific studies but also because of the depressed and depressing states of the patients encountered. Still, this medical book became a bestseller, then a play, and finally an award-winning movie. Through these avenues, great numbers were touched and Dr. Oliver Sacks became a renowned author and a national treasure.

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The Mind’s Eye
Oliver Sacks
Vintage, NY, NY,  2010.

Oliver Sacks was a physician, scientist, and inveterate investigator. He was always trying to figure out one thing or the other. Since he inevitably became a doctor and then a neurologist to boot, he came to explore deeply into problems beyond the kin and interest of all but a few physicians. Oftentimes the rarer the ailment, the more intently Sacks studied it.

While a keen investigator, Oliver Sacks was still a people person and he inevitably turns back to telling stories of people learning to deal with their problems and to adapt to challenges. The Mind’s Eye focuses on challenges of the senses and nerves, most especially visual involvements. It seems quite ironic that Sacks personally dealt with a number of neurological ailments in his own life. They included a melanoma of the eye which caused disturbing effects, loss of vision on one side and his eventual death.

Sacks knew how to relate to people like the man who mistook his wife for a hat, which became the title of one of his book. That particular gentleman had good vision. He “could see everything clearly but recognize nothing.” That seems like a metaphor for times in the lives of many human beings, maybe even Dr. Sacks himself.

Sacks was keen to study stroke and brain injury patients. He found much evidence that “the brain has more powers of repair and regeneration than was once believed. There is far more ‘plasticity,’ too, a greater capacity for undamaged brain areas to take over some of the functions of the damaged ones …”
He even delved into the cranioscopy of Gall which became the phrenology of Spurzheim. Modern science has long looked askance at their works, but Sacks was pleased to investigate it for times and recognize some value therein.

Ever fascinated by the human brain, Sacks was wont to see it as The Mind’s Eye. While he delved into a host of unusual sensory defects as well as hypersensitivities, he also considered fundamental human questions along the way.

A major focus of Sacks’s books was a number of blind wonders who managed to do extraordinary things despite their disabilities. On the other hand, Dr. Sacks was amazed by stories of the blind adults who were given sight through surgery and other means. It seems that in such cases, the arousal of vision can be more of a problem than a gift.

The Mind’s Eye is a testament to the complexity of the human brain and vision and to an extraordinary physician named Oliver Sacks.

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