By Susanne Billig

Not everyone who appreciates Oliver Sacks as an author will benefit from this wealth of information alone. (Deutschlandradio / Rowohlt Verlag)

Oliver Sacks was a giant and exuberant temperament, both in his enthusiasm and in his depressive phases. A new biography now retraces in detail the childhood, love life and professional career of the famous neurologist.

When British neurologist Oliver Sacks’ masterpiece “Awakenings” was published in 1974, it quietly entered the book market. Hardly anyone was interested in Sacks’ medical case stories of the touching fates of a handful of Parkinson’s patients – especially not the medical community, which was suspicious of his literary approach.

At this time, journalist Lawrence Weschler began to take an interest in the unknown doctor, even then with the idea of ​​writing a biography about him. Almost 50 years later, “Oliver Sacks – A Personal Portrait” is now available and provides a detailed portrait of the world famous neurologist who died in 2015 from cancer.

Both collectors and writers

Weschler followed the neurologist closely for four years, then they were friends for decades. And because Sacks and his biographer were enthusiastic about collecting and writing, Weschler was able to compile a multitude of resources: letters, interviews in the doctor’s environment, conversation notes, diary excerpts, personal memories. . It all adds up to a veritable mountain of biography, in which sequences of menus during dinner together or scribbles on sticky notes receive their detailed notes.

Anyone who appreciates Oliver Sacks as a writer won’t just appreciate this abundance, as it almost seems the biographer has surrendered to Sacks’ frenzied temper. In his book, he dispenses with any upper arch that could have held the many elements together.

Instead, Weschler opted for a chronological presentation of the notes that fill his drawers. Because Sacks has struggled with the same issues his entire life, they keep popping up in the biography.

The doctor who wrote was elated and saddened to death, enjoyed riding fast motorcycles, gained terrible weight and then lost again, couldn’t come to terms with his homosexuality all his life and didn’t know how to define himself as a Jew.

He was a manic read and suffered from writer’s block – just like his emotionally cold mother, also a doctor, who took him to the anatomy room as a teenager and had the corpses of children dissected, which resulted in triggered lifelong trauma. We read it over and over again.

Sack modernized neurology

But there are also those passages in which Weschler and Sacks deepen the discussions of neurological specialists in their conversations. You think of John and his Gilles de la Tourette syndrome and the remote treatment rooms that housed the desperate and forgotten patients Sacks loved to work with.

Suddenly we are again close to what made the fame of this doctor: his patient love for those entrusted to him, the fight to probe the lifelines and the illnesses of these people without exposing them. Close to the man whose sensitive writing modernized an entire subject.

Lawrence Weschler: “Oliver Sacks – A Personal Portrait”
Translation of Hainer Kober
Rowohlt, Hamburg 2021
480 pages, 25 euros