Photo by Abi Inman

Oliver Sacks

Author & Neurologist

Oliver Sacks, M.D,. FRCP, was a physician, a best-selling author, and a professor of neurology at the NYU School of Medicine. The New York Times has referred to him as “the poet laureate of medicine.”

As an author, he is best known for his collections of neurological case histories, including The Man who Mistook his Wife for a Hat, Musicophilia: Tales of Music and the Brain and An Anthropologist on Mars. Awakenings, his book about a group of patients who had survived the great encephalitis lethargica epidemic of the early twentieth century, inspired the 1990 Academy Award-nominated feature film starring Robert De Niro and Robin Williams.

Dr. Sacks was a frequent contributor to the New Yorker and the New York Review of Books.

Oliver Sacks Official Portrait

Oliver Sacks

Author & Neurologist

Oliver Sacks, M.D,. FRCP, was a physician, a best-selling author, and a professor of neurology at the NYU School of Medicine. The New York Times has referred to him as “the poet laureate of medicine.”

As an author, he is best known for his collections of neurological case histories, including The Man who Mistook his Wife for a Hat, Musicophilia: Tales of Music and the Brain and An Anthropologist on Mars. Awakenings, his book about a group of patients who had survived the great encephalitis lethargica epidemic of the early twentieth century, inspired the 1990 Academy Award-nominated feature film starring Robert De Niro and Robin Williams.

Dr. Sacks was a frequent contributor to the New Yorker and the New York Review of Books.

Oliver Sacks Official Portrait

Biography

His Life and Work

Oliver Sacks, neurologist and best-selling author was born in 1933 in London, England into a family of physicians and scientists (his mother was a surgeon and his father a general practitioner). He earned his medical degree at Oxford University (Queen’s College), and did residencies and fellowship work at Mt. Zion Hospital in San Francisco and at UCLA. In 1965, he moved to New York, where he was a practicing neurologist and author until his death in 2015.

From 2007 to 2012, he served as a Professor of Neurology and Psychiatry at Columbia University Medical Center, and he was also designated the university’s first Columbia University Artist. From 2012 to 2015, Dr. Sacks was a professor of neurology at the NYU School of Medicine, where he practiced as part of the NYU Comprehensive Epilepsy Center. He was also a visiting professor at the University of Warwick.

In 1966 Dr. Sacks began working as a consulting neurologist for Beth Abraham Hospital in the Bronx, a chronic care hospital where he encountered an extraordinary group of patients, many of whom had spent decades in strange, frozen states, like human statues, unable to initiate movement.

He recognized these patients as survivors of the great pandemic of sleepy sickness that had swept the world from 1916 to 1927, and treated them with a then-experimental drug, L-dopa, which enabled them to come back to life. They became the subjects of his book Awakenings, which later inspired a play by Harold Pinter (“A Kind of Alaska”) and the Oscar-nominated feature film (“Awakenings”) with Robert De Niro and Robin Williams.

Oliver Sacks Portrait
Oliver Sacks holding a brain
Oliver Sacks and Robin Williams pictures on the set of Awakenings

📷 Oliver and Robin Williams on the set of Awakenings, directed by Penny Marshall.

Oliver Sacks writes in his journal

📷 Dr. Sacks captures a thought in his journal. Photo by Lowell Handler

Oliver Sacks and Temple Grandin

📷 With Temple Grandin, the brilliant animal scientist featured in An Anthropologist on Mars. Photo by Rosalie Winard

Oliver Sacks pictured on his motorbike

📷 On his 250cc Norton Motorcycle in 1956.

His approach was not to fit the patient into a syndrome or disease, but to examine the ways in which an individual coped and adapted in unique ways to different neurological challenges. He recognized every human being as an individual with their own strengths and dignity, their own ways of experiencing the world. He wrote about hitherto unknown or misunderstood conditions such as Tourette’s syndrome, aphasia, and autism, and in this way was the godfather of what came to be called neurodiversity.

Sacks is perhaps best known for his collections of case histories from the far borderlands of neurological experience, The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat and An Anthropologist on Mars, in which he describes patients struggling to live with conditions ranging from Tourette’s syndrome to autism, parkinsonism, musical hallucination, epilepsy, phantom limb syndrome, schizophrenia, retardation, and Alzheimer’s disease.

He investigated the world of Deaf people and sign language in Seeing Voices, and a rare community of colorblind people in The Island of the Colorblind. He wrote about his experiences as a doctor in Migraine and as a patient in A Leg to Stand On. He wrote extensively about music and music therapy in his best-seller, Musicophilia: Tales of Music and the Brain (Knopf, 2007).

He chronicled his own experience with ocular melanoma and examined the visual brain in his books The Mind’s Eye (2010) and Hallucinations (2012). He is also the author of two autobiographies, Uncle Tungsten: Memories of a Chemical Boyhood (2001) and On The Move: A Life (2015). He reflected on what it means to live a good and worthwhile life in Gratitude (2015).

Oliver Sacks writes in his journal

📷 Dr. Sacks captures a thought in his journal. Photo by Lowell Handler

Oliver Sacks and Temple Grandin

📷 With Temple Grandin, the brilliant animal scientist featured in An Anthropologist on Mars. Photo by Rosalie Winard

Oliver Sacks pictured on his motorbike

📷 On his 250cc Norton Motorcycle in 1956.

Sacks’s work, which was supported by the Guggenheim Foundation and the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation, regularly appeared in the New Yorker and the New York Review of Books, as well as various medical journals. The New York Times referred to Dr. Sacks as “the poet laureate of medicine,” and in 2002 he was awarded the Lewis Thomas Prize by Rockefeller University, which recognizes the scientist as poet. He was an honorary fellow of both the American Academy of Arts and Letters and the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, and held honorary degrees from many universities, including Oxford, the Karolinska Institute, Georgetown, Bard, Gallaudet, Tufts, and the Catholic University of Peru.

Shortly before his death in 2015, Oliver Sacks wrote an essay looking back on his seminal 1985 book The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat. He described how some of the people he had written about thirty years before were still alive and thriving, and he connected the work that began with “Hat” to his later books. The essay was published for the first time in September, 2021, as the preface to a brand new edition.

Other books that have been published since Dr. Sacks passed away include Everything in Its Place: First Loves and Last Tales (2019), a final collection of essays showcasing his broad range of interests and final case histories, and an updated edition of his 1984 book A Leg To Stand On, (2021) with a new foreword by Kate Edgar.

Filmmaker Ric Burns’s award-winning documentary Oliver Sacks: His Own Life was released in 2019 to critical acclaim. Illuminating the life and work of Dr. Sacks, including the many years he spent with his Awakenings patients, the film features exclusive interviews with Sacks conducted just weeks after he received a terminal diagnosis, and months prior to his death in August 2015.

In April 2022, the Audible Original Podcast series Radiant Minds: The World of Oliver Sacks was released worldwide. Hosted by Indre Viskontas, a neuroscientist and soprano, the nine-part series draws inspiration from the work of Dr. Sacks, and includes rare and some never before published archival tape of Oliver speaking—his audio diaries and his thoughts on various conditions.

Oliver Sacks pictured with Queen Elizabeth II

📷 Dr. Sacks receiving his Commander of the Order of the British Empire (CBE) from Queen Elizabeth II at Buckingham Palace, 2008.

Oliver Sacks pictured at TEDTalks

📷 Dr. Sacks's 2009 TEDTalk on hallucinations has had almost 6 million YouTube views.

Oliver Sacks pictured holding books

📷 The photo of Oliver used to promote the documentary in the U.K. By Ken Shung

Inspired by Oliver Sacks

Feature Films

Oliver Sacks: His Own Life

A feature documentary by award-winning writer and director Ric Burns, celebrating the life of Oliver Sacks. Oliver Sacks: His Own Life explores the riveting and profoundly moving life and work of this unique figure—an old-fashioned polymath and natural historian of the 19th century sort who redefined our 21st century understanding of brain and mind. Stream the Oliver Sacks documentary now!

The Animated Mind of Oliver Sacks (in production)

The Animated Mind of Oliver Sacks is a journey into the mind and work of world-renowned neurologist and author Oliver Sacks. Filmmaker Dempsey Rice’s decade of interviews with Oliver combine with animation, archival material and cinematic new filming, to take this film beyond conventional biography and into Oliver’s mind and world.

Awakenings

Feature film starring Robin Williams and Robert De Niro, Julie Kavner and John Heard. Produced by Walter Parkes and Larry Lasker, directed by Penny Marshall, screenplay by Steven Zaillian. Released December 1990 by Columbia Pictures. Awakening was nominated for three Academy Awards. Received the 1991 Scriptor Award. More info here, stream Awakenings now.

At First Sight

A feature film based on “To See or Not See,” a clinical tale in An Anthropologist on Mars. Starring Val Kilmer, Mira Sorvino, Bruce Davidson, Nathan Lane, Kelly McGillis, and Steven Weber. Screenplay by Steve Leavitt and Rob Cowan. Produced by Rob Cowan. Directed and Produced by Irwin Winkler. Released by MGM, January 1999. More info here.

The Music Never Stopped

An independent feature film based on “The Last Hippie,” a story in An Anthropologist on Mars. Starring Lou Taylor Pucci, Julia Ormond, J.K. Simmons, and Cara Seymour. Directed by Jim Kohlberg, from a script by Gwyn Lurie and Gary Marks. Chosen to premiere at the 2011 Sundance Film Festival and the Berlin Film Festival. Opening in theaters in March 2011. More info here.

Documentary Films / Podcasts / Other Projects

Radiant Minds: The World of Oliver Sacks

Hosted by neuroscientist Indre Viskontas, this nine-part original podcast series from Audible tells the story of the human brain one person at a time. Drawing inspiration from the work of best-selling author Oliver Sacks, each installment introduces listeners to a world of scientific wonder: stories of incredible resilience in the face of life-altering neurological conditions and the powers of the human brain we often take for granted. Listen to the Radiant Minds podcast now.

Awakenings (Opera)

*World Premiere June 5, 2022*
An opera composed by Tobias Picker, libretto by Aryeh Stollman based on the book Awakenings by best-selling author Oliver Sacks. Commissioned for the Opera Theatre of St. Louis. World premiere: June 5, 2021. Performed in English with projected English supertitles Accompanied by members of the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra. Get tickets to the Awakenings opera now.

Awakenings (Ballet)

A ballet composed by Tobias Picker and choreographed by Aletta Collins for the Rambert dance company. Premiered in Manchester, England, September 2010. Learn more.

Musical Minds

One-hour NOVA documentary on music therapy, produced by Ryan Murdock. Originally broadcast June, 23 2009 on PBS stations. Based on the 2008 BBC documentary by Alan Yentob and Louise Lockwood. This version has additional footage, including fMRI images of Dr. Sacks’s brain as he listens to music.

Oliver Sacks: Tales of Music and the Brain

One-hour BBC One documentary on music therapy as part of Alan Yentob’s “Imagine” series. Produced by Louise Lockwood and originally broadcast June 3, 2008.

The Mind Traveler

US broadcast. Four-part PBS series by Rosetta Pictures. Christopher Rawlence, producer and director; Emma Crichton-Miller, co-producer. Episodes on “The Ragin’ Cajun” (on a deaf-blind community in Seattle); “Island of the Colorblind” (on color and colorblindness in a small Pacific atoll); “Rage for Order” (on an autistic artist, Jessy Park); and “Don’t be Shy, Mr. Sacks” (on Williams syndrome), September 1998.

U.K. Broadcast. Six-part BBC series by Rosetta Pictures. Christopher Rawlence, producer and director; Emma Crichton-Miller, co-producer. September 1996. In addition to the episodes listed above, the U.K. broadcast included “Poison in Paradise” (a mysterious neurological disease on the island of Guam) and “Shane” (an artist withTourette Syndrome).

A Glorious Accident

A documentary for VPRO by Wim Kayzer, first aired in the Netherlands in 1993 and on PBS stations in the United States in 1994. More info.

Featuring Oliver Sacks, Stephen Jay Gould, Freeman Dyson, Rupert Sheldrake, Steven Toulmin and Daniel Dennett. From the New York Times: “Holland has only 15 million people, and one million of them watched some or all of “A Glorious Accident,” a rating usually reserved for sitcoms and dramas. A book based on the series was No. 1 on the Dutch best-seller list for months. For the final episode, 12 percent of the adult population tuned in, and the next day some universities closed to give people time to ponder the experience.”

In Search of Lucy Doe

One-hour documentary on languagelessness, produced for Arte TV, France by Rosetta Pictures. Produced and directed by Christopher Rawlence; co-producer by Emma Crichton-Miller. First broadcast by Arte TV, November 1996. (This film is not currently available.)

A Change in Mind

A documentary about a man with Tourette’s Syndrome. Produced by Duncan Dallas, Yorkshire Television, 1978. (This film is not currently available.)

Stage Adaptations

A Kind of Alaska

A one-act play by Harold Pinter, based on Awakenings by author Oliver Sacks . Performed in “Other Places” at National Theatre (Cottesloe), London, Oct. 1982 with Judi Dench, Paul Rogers, & Anna Massey. Directed by Peter Hall.

US Premiere at The Manhattan Theatre Club, New York City, April 1984 with Dianne Wiest, Henderson Forsythe, & Caroline Lagerfelt. Directed by Alan Schneider.

Awakenings

Adapted by Arnold Aprill for a stage reading at City Lit Theater Company, Chicago, Sept. 10, 1987.

Awakenings

Adapted by John Reeves for a dramatic reading, CBC Radio, 1986.

Drummer

A one-act play by Peter Barnes, adapted from “Witty Ticcy Ray.”

The Man Who Mistook his Wife for a Hat

A one-act opera adapted by Michael Morris, music by Michael Nyman, based on author Oliver Sacks’s critically-acclaimed book. Produced and libretto by Christopher Rawlence. First performed at the Inst. of Contemporary Arts, London, Oct. 30, 1986. U.S. Premiere at the American Music Theater Festival, Philadelphia, Sept. 30, 1987.
Performed at Lincoln Center Theater, New York City, July 14, 1988.

The Man Who Mistook his Wife for a Hat

Filmed version of the opera.

L’homme Qui…

Theatrical production by Peter Brook, inspired by author Oliver Sacks’s The Man Who Mistook his Wife for a Hat. First production at the Theatre des Bouffes du Nord in Paris, 1993; English version, “The Man Who…,” first performed at the National Theatre, 1994 and 1995; Brooklyn Academy of Music, 1995; and elsewhere.

Molly Sweeney

A play by Brian Friel inspired in part by “To See and Not See,” a clinical tale in An Anthropologist on Mars. World premiere Gate Theatre, Dublin, August 1994, with Catherine Byrne, Mark Lambert, and T. P. McKenna; U.S. debut January 1996, Roundabout Theater, with Catherine Byrne, Jason Robards, and Alfred Molina.

Inspired by Oliver Sacks

Feature Films

Oliver Sacks: His Own Life

A feature documentary by award-winning writer and director Ric Burns, celebrating the life of Oliver Sacks. Oliver Sacks: His Own Life explores the riveting and profoundly moving life and work of this unique figure—an old-fashioned polymath and natural historian of the 19th century sort who redefined our 21st century understanding of brain and mind. Stream the Oliver Sacks documentary now!

The Animated Mind of Oliver Sacks (in production)

The Animated Mind of Oliver Sacks is a journey into the mind and work of world-renowned neurologist and author Oliver Sacks. Filmmaker Dempsey Rice’s decade of interviews with Oliver combine with animation, archival material and cinematic new filming, to take this film beyond conventional biography and into Oliver’s mind and world.

Awakenings

Feature film starring Robin Williams and Robert De Niro, Julie Kavner and John Heard. Produced by Walter Parkes and Larry Lasker, directed by Penny Marshall, screenplay by Steven Zaillian. Released December 1990 by Columbia Pictures. Awakening was nominated for three Academy Awards. Received the 1991 Scriptor Award. More info here, stream Awakenings now.

At First Sight

A feature film based on “To See or Not See,” a clinical tale in An Anthropologist on Mars. Starring Val Kilmer, Mira Sorvino, Bruce Davidson, Nathan Lane, Kelly McGillis, and Steven Weber. Screenplay by Steve Leavitt and Rob Cowan. Produced by Rob Cowan. Directed and Produced by Irwin Winkler. Released by MGM, January 1999. More info here.

The Music Never Stopped

An independent feature film based on “The Last Hippie,” a story in An Anthropologist on Mars. Starring Lou Taylor Pucci, Julia Ormond, J.K. Simmons, and Cara Seymour. Directed by Jim Kohlberg, from a script by Gwyn Lurie and Gary Marks. Chosen to premiere at the 2011 Sundance Film Festival and the Berlin Film Festival. Opening in theaters in March 2011. More info here.

Documentary Films / Podcasts / Other Projects

Radiant Minds: The World of Oliver Sacks

Hosted by neuroscientist Indre Viskontas, this nine-part original podcast series from Audible tells the story of the human brain one person at a time. Drawing inspiration from the work of best-selling author Oliver Sacks, each installment introduces listeners to a world of scientific wonder: stories of incredible resilience in the face of life-altering neurological conditions and the powers of the human brain we often take for granted. Listen to the Radiant Minds podcast now.

Awakenings (Opera)

*World Premiere June 5, 2022*
An opera composed by Tobias Picker, libretto by Aryeh Stollman based on the book Awakenings by best-selling author Oliver Sacks. Commissioned for the Opera Theatre of St. Louis. World premiere: June 5, 2021. Performed in English with projected English supertitles Accompanied by members of the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra. Get tickets now.

Awakenings (Ballet)

A ballet composed by Tobias Picker and choreographed by Aletta Collins for the Rambert dance company. Premiered in Manchester, England, September 2010. Learn more.

Musical Minds

One-hour NOVA documentary on music therapy, produced by Ryan Murdock. Originally broadcast June, 23 2009 on PBS stations. Based on the 2008 BBC documentary by Alan Yentob and Louise Lockwood. This version has additional footage, including fMRI images of Dr. Sacks’s brain as he listens to music.

Oliver Sacks: Tales of Music and the Brain

One-hour BBC One documentary on music therapy as part of Alan Yentob’s “Imagine” series. Produced by Louise Lockwood and originally broadcast June 3, 2008.

The Mind Traveler

US broadcast. Four-part PBS series by Rosetta Pictures. Christopher Rawlence, producer and director; Emma Crichton-Miller, co-producer. Episodes on “The Ragin’ Cajun” (on a deaf-blind community in Seattle); “Island of the Colorblind” (on color and colorblindness in a small Pacific atoll); “Rage for Order” (on an autistic artist, Jessy Park); and “Don’t be Shy, Mr. Sacks” (on Williams syndrome), September 1998.

U.K. Broadcast. Six-part BBC series by Rosetta Pictures. Christopher Rawlence, producer and director; Emma Crichton-Miller, co-producer. September 1996. In addition to the episodes listed above, the U.K. broadcast included “Poison in Paradise” (a mysterious neurological disease on the island of Guam) and “Shane” (an artist withTourette Syndrome).

A Glorious Accident

A documentary for VPRO by Wim Kayzer, first aired in the Netherlands in 1993 and on PBS stations in the United States in 1994. More info.

Featuring Oliver Sacks, Stephen Jay Gould, Freeman Dyson, Rupert Sheldrake, Steven Toulmin and Daniel Dennett. From the New York Times: “Holland has only 15 million people, and one million of them watched some or all of “A Glorious Accident,” a rating usually reserved for sitcoms and dramas. A book based on the series was No. 1 on the Dutch best-seller list for months. For the final episode, 12 percent of the adult population tuned in, and the next day some universities closed to give people time to ponder the experience.”

In Search of Lucy Doe

One-hour documentary on languagelessness, produced for Arte TV, France by Rosetta Pictures. Produced and directed by Christopher Rawlence; co-producer by Emma Crichton-Miller. First broadcast by Arte TV, November 1996. (This film is not currently available.)

A Change in Mind

A documentary about a man with Tourette’s Syndrome. Produced by Duncan Dallas, Yorkshire Television, 1978. (This film is not currently available.)

Stage Adaptations

A Kind of Alaska

A one-act play by Harold Pinter, based on Awakenings by author Oliver Sacks . Performed in “Other Places” at National Theatre (Cottesloe), London, Oct. 1982 with Judi Dench, Paul Rogers, & Anna Massey. Directed by Peter Hall.

US Premiere at The Manhattan Theatre Club, New York City, April 1984 with Dianne Wiest, Henderson Forsythe, & Caroline Lagerfelt. Directed by Alan Schneider.

Awakenings

Adapted by Arnold Aprill for a stage reading at City Lit Theater Company, Chicago, Sept. 10, 1987.

Awakenings

Adapted by John Reeves for a dramatic reading, CBC Radio, 1986.

Drummer

A one-act play by Peter Barnes, adapted from “Witty Ticcy Ray.”

The Man Who Mistook his Wife for a Hat

A one-act opera adapted by Michael Morris, music by Michael Nyman, based on author Oliver Sacks’s critically-acclaimed book. Produced and libretto by Christopher Rawlence. First performed at the Inst. of Contemporary Arts, London, Oct. 30, 1986. U.S. Premiere at the American Music Theater Festival, Philadelphia, Sept. 30, 1987.
Performed at Lincoln Center Theater, New York City, July 14, 1988.

The Man Who Mistook his Wife for a Hat

Filmed version of the opera.

Photo by Abi Inman

L’homme Qui…

Theatrical production by Peter Brook, inspired by author Oliver Sacks’s The Man Who Mistook his Wife for a Hat. First production at the Theatre des Bouffes du Nord in Paris, 1993; English version, “The Man Who…,” first performed at the National Theatre, 1994 and 1995; Brooklyn Academy of Music, 1995; and elsewhere.

Molly Sweeney

A play by Brian Friel inspired in part by “To See and Not See,” a clinical tale in An Anthropologist on Mars. World premiere Gate Theatre, Dublin, August 1994, with Catherine Byrne, Mark Lambert, and T. P. McKenna; U.S. debut January 1996, Roundabout Theater, with Catherine Byrne, Jason Robards, and Alfred Molina.

Books Background

BOOKS

Browse the Oliver Sacks Collection

Donate

Continue the work of Oliver Sacks by donating today. Photo by Bill Hayes

NEWS

Read all the latest Oliver Sacks news