As a child in pre-WWII England, Oliver Sacks collected bus tickets whose numbers corresponded to all of the known elements of the time, from H1 to U92. “I think it was the only such collection in the world,” he says. As an adult, a doctor, and a writer, he has become known for the unique vision to which his early collection testifies.
This vision allows him to sense the scientific in the everyday world, the person in the patient, the story behind the symptom. In his early books, Awakenings (1973) (which was made into a major motion picture) and The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat (1985), he explored the “uncanny worlds of his neurological patients” via narrative and empathy. “Sacks possesses the physician’s love for classification and logical dissection,” Ethan Canin wrote in the Washington Post Book World, “but we see that he is also blessed with the humanist’s wonder at character and grace, at the ineffable sadness and wondrous joy of art.” In his recent works, Uncle Tungsten: Memoirs of a Chemical Boyhood (2001) and Oaxaca Journal (2002), he has focused this wonder on perhaps his most eccentric patient yet: himself.
A Guggenheim Fellow, Dr. Sacks lives in New York City where he is a clinical professor of neurology at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine and a frequent contributor to the New Yorker and the New York Review of Books.
Excerpt from Uncle Tungsten: Memories of a Chemical Boyhood (2001)
Many of my childhood memories are of metals: these seemed to exert a power on me from the start. They stood out, conspicuous against the heterogeneousness of the world, by their shining, gleaming quality, their silveriness, their smoothness and weight. They seemed cool to the touch, and they rang when they were struck.
I loved the yellowness, the heaviness, of gold. My mother would take the wedding ring from her finger and let me handle it for a while, as she told me of its inviolacy, how it never tarnished. “Feel how heavy it is,” she would add. “It’s even heavier than lead.” I knew what lead was, for I had handled the heavy, soft piping the plumber had left one year. Gold was soft, too, my mother told me, so it was usually combined with another metal to make it harder.
It was the same with copper—people mixed it with tin to produce bronze. Bronze!—the very word was like a trumpet to me, for battle was the brave clash of bronze upon bronze, bronze spears on bronze shields, the great shield of Achilles. Or you could alloy copper with zinc, my mother said, to produce brass. All of us—my mother, my brothers, and I—had our own brass menorahs for Hanukkah. (My father had a silver one.)
I knew copper, the shiny rose color of the great copper cauldron in our kitchen—it was taken down only once a year, when the quinces and crab apples were ripe in the garden and my mother would stew them to make jelly.
I knew zinc: the dull, slightly bluish birdbath in the garden was made of zinc; and tin, from the heavy tinfoil in which sandwiches were wrapped for a picnic. My mother showed me that when tin or zinc was bent it uttered a special “cry.” “It’s due to deformation of the crystal structure,” she said, forgetting that I was five, and could not understand her—and yet her words fascinated me, made me want to know more.
Oaxaca Journal (2002)
Uncle Tungsten: Memories of a Chemical Boyhood (2001)
The Island of the Colorblind (1997)
An Anthropologist on Mars (1995)
Seeing Voices (1989)
The Man who Mistook his Wife for a Hat (1985)
Awakenings (1973, rev. ed. 1990)