Oliver Wolf SacksBMJ 2015; 351 doi: https://doi.org/10.1136/bmj.h4800 (Published 07 September 2015) Cite this as: BMJ 2015;351:h4800
- Geoff Watts, London
Strictly speaking, Oliver Sacks was a physician who took up writing. But his authorial impact was such that it makes equal sense to think of him as a writer who happened to have a broad knowledge of medicine. He mined that knowledge for insights into what it is to be human, whether in sickness or in health. His most celebrated medical achievement was the use of L-dopa in the treatment of a group of patients affected by the epidemic of encephalitis lethargica in the 1920s. It was also this, chronicled in his 1973 book Awakenings and the subsequent film, that brought him to public attention.
Readers of his many books unfamiliar with the medical literature of years gone by may have thought Sacks had created a new genre in his writing about illness. He hadn’t, of course. What he had done was resurrect an approach that once characterised much of the content of medical journals: the case history. He modernised it, enlivened it with his literary skills, and embellished it with his own humanity.
A century or more ago—when medicine’s grasp of disease was still …