Wednesday, January 2, 2013

Adventure classics -- Witnesses to catastrophe


by Oliver Sacks


London-born Oliver Sacks was the son of two doctors, come to the United States to do neurological research. But “I was always dropping things or breaking things,” he confessed to a medical audience, “and eventually they said: ‘Get out! Go work with patients. They’re less important.’”

The line got sardonic laughter from the Dr. Sacks’ audience of doctors, editor/author Wendy Lesser reported in her review of the documentary film based on Sacks’ most startling medical discovery.

His 1973 book, Awakenings, drawn from his experiences with post-encephalitic patients, received two film treatments. The first was the documentary Lesser viewed in 2001 at the New York University School of Medicine with Sacks present. This is also the film he refers to in later editions of his book, references that puzzled me at first, since I knew only the later commercial film starring Robin Williams and Robert DeNiro.

Fortunately, Sacks includes still photos from the documentary in the book’s later editions. But avidly though I studied them, they were almost irrelevant. I already knew these people, had fallen in love with them -- Frances D., Rose R., Leonard L., and others whose lives Sacks documented after his banishment from laboratory work to the chronic care hospital Beth Abraham, housing victims of a strange sleeping sickness epidemic of the 1920’s.

All patients had symptoms of Parkinsonism, but they were unusual in developing the disease at relatively young ages after recovering from a post-World War I viral form of encephalitis. Their version of Parkinson’s was also abnormally severe -- a “decades-long ‘sleep’ which closed over their heads and in the 1930’s and thereafter,” Sacks reports in his introduction to life at the hospital he gave the pseudonym “Mount Carmel.”

“One thing, and one alone, was (usually) spared amid the ravages of this otherwise engulfing disease: the ‘higher faculties’ -- intelligence, imagination, judgement, and humour,” Sacks wrote.

But in 1967, a doctor working with similar patients in England reported benefits from the use of the drug L-DOPA. With some of his patients who were able to communicate clamoring for the drug, Sacks began trials at Beth Abraham. The effects seemed at first miraculous, as patients who had been immobile, in some cases catatonic, for decades awoke as if resurrected.

Euphoria soon gave way to dismay as side effects proliferated, sometimes leaving patients more disabled even than before the drug trials. Still, the “awakened” patients urged Sacks to chronicle their stories, not simply as case histories but as individuals whose fate “was to become unique witnesses to a unique catastrophe.”

After decades of additional drug trials, one patient, Lillian, who appeared in the documentary was still well enough to act as on-set adviser for the 1990 Hollywood movie. Unfortunately, the single scene in which she appeared, with star DeNiro, was cut. (“I guess they thought real patients weren’t authentic enough,” Sacks remarked.) The last survivor of the original patients, Lillian died in 1992.

For more about Sacks and his writings, including additional books, see

For Wendy Lesser’s complete review of the Awakenings documentary, see “Seeing ‘Awakenings’ With Its Real-Life Cast,” at



(Next Wednesday -- I’d hoped to follow this Adventure classics’ post with a discussion of Dr. Sacks’ acquaintance, Dr. Temple Grandin, and her memoir of her own life with autism. But it looks like the Dallas Public Library won’t have her book in time for me to renew my memory of it. So I’ll go with a possibly even stranger real life tale by British-Soviet mole Kim Philby, My Silent War.)

No comments:

Post a Comment