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Ralph Siegel


The case of the colour-blind painter
Oliver Sacks Scientist
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I want to speak about some events which followed the publication of The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat. There had been a... a review by a... well known neurologist... well, actually a very good neurologist, a chap called John Marshall who was at Oxford and whose work I admired, and I was very glad that he wrote a review in the... in The New York Times, and it was predominantly a positive review, but with one qualification. He said, 'Dr Sacks is disingenuous. He pretends to know nothing about a subject and only to get interested in a subject when a patient appears, and then to, sort of, find out more, whereas we know this is not the way neurologists work. Neurologists bone up on a subject first and then see the patient, full of... knowing all the published work on the subject'. I wrote to thank him for his review but protested at this point, and he said, that's okay, you know, we... we know how things are. But then early in '87, I got a letter from a patient, a man, an artist, who said that some months beforehand he had had a car accident. He had been amnesic for a day and had some other problems. He couldn't read for a day or two. He said the police report of the accident, he said, appeared to be written in Greek or Hebrew and was unintelligible, but the most important and distressing thing was that he had lost all perception of colour with the accident, and this hadn't returned in the least. He asked me whether I had ever encountered such a condition and whether I could be of any help. I wrote back to him, saying, no, I had never encountered this and I didn't know if I could help, but he should come and see me.

When he came, he brought in a thick folder of papers on acquired achromatopsia to give it the... the proper title of colour blindness of cerebral origin following a stroke, an accident, or whatever. Basically, he brought me the world's literature on the subject, and he said... I said, 'Where did you get this?' And he said that he had written to my reviewer, to John Marshall, and John Marshall's response had been to send him all the literature. My response was to come and... was to say, 'Come and see me'. And I... later I told that story... that story to John Marshall, but I don't think I changed his mind.

Now, this was a very... a wonderful and interesting man. A gifted artist and articulate, he described how devastating things had been at first when he found himself, as he put it, in a... in a leaden world. How he... he couldn't imagine returning to painting, he was an abstract expressionist who was quite famous for his use of colour, and he didn't know how he could continue as a human being. He was appalled by his wife's appearance, by his own appearance, he couldn't imagine colour. He couldn't retrieve it from memory. This interested me very much because I... it had never occurred to me that colour might be constructed in the brain, perhaps by many different parts of the brain working in concert, and that this construction was as necessary for memory and imagery as for perception. He even told me that when he got migraines, and in a migraine one can have a zigzag which typically has brilliant colours associated with it, he said his migraine fortifications were black and white.

I... now let me get the order right. So I was very, very interested by this patient, and when I went to La Jolla, I was asked to give a talk at the Salk Institute, followed by a dinner. Francis Crick came up, seized me by the shoulders, sat me down next to him and said, ‘Tell me stories’. In particular he wanted stories of visual mishaps, of alterations of visual perception or imagery. So I told him a number of stories, including the story of the colour-blind painter. And this was the start of a correspondence with Crick. I'd never... I'd had a, sort of scientific... a more clinical correspondence with Luria, but this was now a much more scientific correspondence with Crick, and I was started to be drawn into neuroscience. I think the Hat book was... was almost exclusively descriptive, whereas now I had to think, what is going on in the brain, and where, with this loss of colour, and can anything be done about it?

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: John Marshall, Francis Crick

Duration: 6 minutes, 38 seconds

Date story recorded: September 2011

Date story went live: 02 October 2012