Nestled in the heart of Dorset, at the edges of an alpine meadow, is the central laboratory of neurologist Oliver Sacks.
It’s the birthplace of neurology, the field of medicine that Sacks honed in his first formal training in 1917 at Blyth College of Medicine at Bath.
Since 1979, Sacks, who died in June, has been one of the world’s most eminent neurologists. He was a pioneer in the study of Alzheimer’s disease, for which he won the Nobel Prize in Medicine in 2000. In 1985, Sacks received the Medal of Doctorate in Literature from the Netherlands.
Today, he’s one of the most revered clinicians of his generation, and is largely credited with discovering a way to stop dementia. This unusual treatment has, in many cases, made people virtually “live again.”
But it also has brought its share of controversies. Sacks fought the stigma around treatment of other forms of dementia in public spaces and in institutions — with the assistance of cardiologist Geoffrey Chandler, who helped one of his patients die for the sake of the program. This included experimenting with what he called “the Mis-Use Dead of course” method, which uses supposed “dead bodies” to reverse movement in the brain.
“I have been drawn to his subjects because of the intricate method of his medicine,” says Matthew Brosnahan, who edited an Sacks biography, “The Ultimate Memoirs of a Dr.”
Sacks is revered not just for the medical advancements that have come from his expertise, but for the manner in which he and his students tackle difficult subjects. He is a “genius” who set out to crack a big problem, says director Dr. Ed Bloedel.
“He set out to do great things with big ideas,” he says. “He was the sort of person who really gets people.”A History of Neurology
When he was born in London in 1910, Oliver Sacks grew up in a working-class family in Coventry, England. After making a short career as a researcher, he moved to Canada and studied there and in the United States before returning to England in 1938 to take a fellowship in neurology at Royal Melbourne Hospital in Melbourne.
During that time, doctors coined the term “dementia” to describe more than a half-dozen illnesses, including Alzheimer’s disease, Parkinson’s disease, and bipolar disorder.
His family was a pioneer in not only teaching people to live longer — but also to have surgery to reduce the symptoms of a condition such as Lou Gehrig’s disease (which caused the death of Ironman World Champion and Boston Red Sox all-star athlete Jeff Howe, who currently suffers from ALS).
Oliver Sacks was one of the first patients to be a fellow at the Royal Melbourne Hospital. His patients died within a few months of his diagnosis. Many of his many patients chronicled his sad experiences.
“I went away to be educated,” he told a BBC interviewer. “It was an institution that taught a great deal to study, to think, and to take problems and try to find their solution, and I think that’s what I achieved.
“Before I went to medical school, I’d always had this idea that to improve our human condition I would have to reduce the number of losses, or the burden of loss, that people take on me when I tell them the real reason that they’re taking on me.”‘I was entitled to my life’
Oliver Sacks (1882-1976) was a child prodigy. A natural inventor, Sacks created dozens of huge and intricate equipment that enabled physicians to develop new strategies for treating children with eye disease.
Upon arriving at the Royal Melbourne Hospital, he pursued his interest in neurology — first as a resident and then as a professor of neurological surgery at the College of Medicine.
Sacks’ research raised important questions about and expanded treatments for various types of dementia.
First, he was the first neurologist to develop a traditional treatment for Alzheimer’s that involved many injections of white blood cells called silicones.
This came off as a short-term measure. Although Sacks had the experience, he recognized that this treatment didn’t stop the disease in the long term.
“After you’ve injected your silicones, I’m entitled to my life,” he told a visiting Canadian doctor.
Dr. Lawrence O. Goldman first read about Sacks’ research, and asked if Sacks had any interest in a genetics test for Alzheimer’s disease. He says the professor got excited when he saw a 10-year scan of his patients, whose disease appeared “dramatically slowed down,” he said.
Sacks himself wanted to go back into medicine, too.