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'Therapeutic punishment'


Working on Ward 23 with autistic, psychotic and retarded patients
Oliver Sacks Scientist
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In '74, and '75, '76, some events were to happen which darkened my life. When I came back to New York, after the publication of Awakenings in the summer of '73, the then director at Bronx State Hospital asked if I would... he invited me in for a long talk, amongst other things we talked about schizophrenia and mental illness. I had been working for the previous seven years as a neurology consultant at this state psychiatric hospital doing a clinic a week, and finding out if people diagnosed as schizophrenic might in fact have some neurological condition or something else, and [Leon] Salzman, the then director, a very good man, who had written an excellent book on the obsessional personality, invited me to come in half time to the hospital, and... and said he thought I would be particularly interested in a... a ward which dealt with young, autistic and psychotic and retarded people, Ward 23.

At... autism was not a hot subject at that time, no-one was talking about autism in '73, and I... so I accepted the offer, and at first I enjoyed being on this ward, although it upset me deeply as well. Neurologists, probably more than any other specialists, see tragic cases, people with incurable, relentless diseases which can cause great suffering. There has to be, along with fellow feeling and sympathy and compassion, there has to be a sort of detachment so you’re not drawn into a hopeless identification with a patient.

Oliver Sacks (1933-2015) was born in England. Having obtained his medical degree at Oxford University, he moved to the USA. There he worked as a consultant neurologist at Beth Abraham Hospital where in 1966, he encountered a group of survivors of the global sleepy sickness of 1916-1927. Sacks treated these patients with the then-experimental drug L-Dopa producing astounding results which he described in his book Awakenings. Further cases of neurological disorders were described by Sacks with exceptional sympathy in another major book entitled The Man Who Mistook His Wife For A Hat which became an instant best seller on its publication in 1985. His other books drew on his rich experiences as a neurologist gleaned over almost five decades of professional practice. Sacks's work was recognized by prestigious institutions which awarded him numerous honours and prizes. These included the Lewis Thomas Prize given by Rockefeller University, which recognizes the scientist as poet. He was an honorary fellow of both the American Academy of Arts and Letters and the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, and held honorary degrees from many universities, including Oxford, the Karolinska Institute, Georgetown, Bard, Gallaudet, Tufts, and the Catholic University of Peru.

Listeners: Kate Edgar

Kate Edgar, previously Managing Editor at the Summit Books division of Simon and Schuster, began working with Oliver Sacks in 1983. She has served as editor and researcher on all of his books, and has been closely involved with various films and adaptations based on his work. As friend, assistant, and collaborator, she has accompanied Dr Sacks on many adventures around the world, clinical and otherwise.

Tags: Bronx State Hospital, Awakenings, Leon Salzman

Duration: 2 minutes, 56 seconds

Date story recorded: September 2011

Date story went live: 02 October 2012