Best-selling writer is honored for his literary contributions to science
Oliver Sacks, author of the best-selling book Awakenings, which was the basis for a movie of the same name starring Robin Williams and Robert de Niro, received The Rockefeller University’s 2001 Lewis Thomas Prize on Monday, March 18, in the university’s Caspary Auditorium. The prize, “Honoring the Scientist as Poet,” has been awarded annually since 1993 to a writer who is accomplished in the realms of both science and literature.
Sacks is the author of nine books, including the best-seller The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat and, most recent, Uncle Tungsten: Memories of a Chemical Boyhood, 2001, and Oaxaca Journal. His books have received numerous awards and been translated into 22 languages.
“Sacks’s prose is clear and measured and precise, often like a case report, but its effect is at times magical,” says Rockefeller University Acting President Tom Sakmar. “The sparse, economical, direct and almost interactive style allows one to read, and at the same time to reflect, and to drift into the narrative.
“We feel what he himself must have felt in the autobiographical book A Leg to Stand On. We feel the vicarious horror for Dr. P., ‘the man who mistook his wife for a hat.’ How can the magnificent human brain play such horrific pranks on us? Why cannot medical science and neurology describe in precise terms Dr. P.’s infirmity?
“It’s because it takes a master of narrative, like Dr. Sacks, to do it instead.”
Sacks suggests, “There is often the idea that Science and Art are antithetical – that they not only form “two cultures,” but are located in different realms of the mind, and perhaps even different hemispheres of the brain. I have no sense of any such division in myself, and I think Lewis Thomas, whose own writings were invariably lucid, transparent, and beautiful, however technical the subject, had no sense of any such division either. I think this sense of the beauty of science, and of its proper expression in the beauty of language, has characterized all the winners of the Lewis Thomas Prize, and I feel greatly honored, now, to be included in their number.”
Born and raised in England, Sacks received the M.D. degree at the University of Oxford. In 1965 he moved to New York City, where he is a clinical professor of neurology at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine, adjunct professor of neurology at New York University School of Medicine and consultant neurologist to the Little Sisters of the Poor and at Beth Abraham Hospital. He also is a fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Letters.
The Lewis Thomas Prize was established in 1993 by the trustees of The Rockefeller University. Its first recipient was Lewis Thomas himself, who combined an active medical practice with a successful literary career that included a National Book Award for his now-classic essay collection The Lives of a Cell(1974).
Other recipients of the prize named in Thomas’s honor have been François Jacob (1994), Abraham Pais (1995), Freeman Dyson (1996), Max Perutz (1997), Ernst Mayr (1998), Steven Weinberg (1999) and Edward O. Wilson (2000).
In addition to receiving the prize on March 18, Sacks spoke on “Narrative and Science.” The transcript and audio recording of his remarks are available on The Rockefeller University Web site athttp://www.rockefeller.edu/lectures/sacks031802.html.