Oliver Wolf Sacks (1933-2015) was born in London to Jewish parents who were both doctors. His mother came from an Orthodox family and was among the first female surgeons in the UK. Following in his parents’ footsteps, Sacks became a doctor in 1960. He completed his residencies in neurology in San Francisco and at UCLA, then worked as a neurologist in New York. Based on his work at the Beth Abraham Hospital in the Bronx, Sacks wrote the autobiographical book Awakenings, which became a bestseller and was adapted to the Oscar-nominated film starring Robert De Niro and Robin Williams. In addition to his neurology practice, for nearly fifty years Sacks was a neurology and psychiatry professor at a number of schools, including Columbia and NYU. He has written over a dozen books and countless articles and publications – all by hand or on a typewriter. His writings, translated into over 25 languages, have won numerous awards. The New York Times described him as a “poet laureate of contemporary medicine”. He contributed immensely to the field of neurology, and is credited with inspiring many of the today’s top neuroscientists. Interestingly, Sacks himself suffered from a neurological disorder called prosopagnosia, an inability to recognize faces. Despite being well-known for his great love and compassion for others, Sacks never married, and was celibate for 35 years. He spent time as a bodybuilder (at one point setting a state weightlifting record by squatting 600 pounds), nearly died while mountain climbing solo, held 12 honorary doctorates, and had a planet named after him. Sadly, Sacks passed away last week after a battle with cancer.
Words of the Week
I love to discover potential in people who aren’t thought to have any. – Oliver Sacks
Rita Levi-Montalcini was born in Italy in 1909, and still goes to work every day at the European Brain Institute. If you didn’t catch that: she is 103 years old. That makes her the only Nobel Prize winner in history to live 100 years. She won the prize together with fellow Jew Stanley Cohen for discovering Nerve Growth Factor, the main protein involved in neurological development. Levi-Montalcini went to medical school in the 1930s, but was barred from being a physician by Mussolini’s race laws that prevented Jews from holding academic professions. So she set up a laboratory in her home and studied the nerves of chickens. This was the basis for many of her future discoveries. Wherever her family fled during the war, Levi-Montalcini set up mobile labs; at one point even running a genetics lab from her bedroom! After the war she continued her research and taught at Washington University for 30 years. She has won the National Medal of Science, and was knighted, too. In 2001, Levi-Montalcini was appointed a senator for life and is the eldest member of Italy’s Upper House. Her advice for living a long and healthy life: “minimal sleep, limited food intake, and always keeping the brain active and interested.”
UPDATE: Sadly, Rita Levi-Montalcini passed away in December of 2012, seven months after this post was originally published.