05/01/2015

The Other Side of Oliver Sacks

5:00 minutes

We all know Dr. Oliver Sacks as a renowned neurologist, portrayed by Robin Williams in the film Awakenings, and as a prolific author. But he’s a true Renaissance man, as becomes clear when reading his new memoir On the Move: A Life.

He writes of his days as a leather-jacketed motorcycle tough, racing motorbikes on the highways of England at 100 miles an hour. He hung out at Muscle Beach, in Venice, California, and holds the California weightlifting record for doing a full squat with 600 pounds on his back. He’s also a swimmer, a diver, and has taken to the seas all over the world.

Those are just a few of the tales that remind us what it really means to live life to its fullest. Oliver Sacks truly has. We were saddened to read his op-ed in The New York Times a few months back, in which he announced that he’s battling cancer and has but a few months to live. So we’re sorry he couldn’t join us in the studio to share a few of his stories. But he did send over a recording, a reading from the book. It’s a tale from his early days, as a student at Oxford.


My mother, a surgeon and anatomist, while accepting that I was too clumsy to follow in her footsteps as a surgeon, expected me at least to excel in anatomy at Oxford. We dissected bodies and attended lectures, and a couple of years later had to sit for a final anatomy exam.  

When the results were posted, I saw that I was ranked one from bottom in the class. I dreaded my mother’s reaction and decided that, in the circumstances, a few drinks were called for. I made my way to a favorite pub, The White Horse in Broad Street, where I drank four or five pints of hard cider. Stronger than most beer, and cheaper, too.  

Rolling out of The White Horse, liquored up, I was seized by a mad and impudent idea. I would try to compensate for my abysmal performance in the anatomy finals by having a go at a very prestigious university prize—the Theodore Williams Scholarship in Anatomy. The exam had already started, but I lurched in, drunkenly bold, sat down at a vacant desk and looked at the exam paper. There were seven questions to be answered. I pounced on one—Does structural differentiation imply functional differentiation?—and I wrote nonstop for two hours on the subject.

Then I left, an hour before the exam ended, ignoring the other six questions. The results were in The Times that weekend. I, Oliver Wolf Sacks, had won the prize. Everyone was dumbfounded. How could someone, who’d come one but last in the anatomy finals, walk off with the Theodore Williams Prize?  

Fifty pounds came with a Theodore Williams Prize—50 pounds! I’d never had so much money at once. This time I went not to The White Horse but to Blackwell’s Bookshop next door to the pub, and bought, for 44 pounds, the 12 volumes of the Oxford English Dictionary. For me, the most coveted and desirable book in the world. I was to read the entire dictionary through when I went on to medical school, and I still like to take a volume off the shelf now and then for bedtime reading.

Meet the Producer

About Christopher Intagliata

Christopher Intagliata is Science Friday’s senior producer. He once served as a prop in an optical illusion and speaks passable Ira Flatowese.

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