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Writing for the academic journals


You are famous now: the success of 'Hat' and 'Awakenings'
Oliver Sacks Scientist
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In 1973, when Awakenings was published in England and selected as... as a book of the year by five people in The Observer, Jonathan said to me, 'You’re famous now'. But I got no impression of that, or whatever that means. Awakenings didn’t do particularly well here, and... and although I think it was gradually getting momentum, especially among medical students who would sort of, I think, sometimes have copies in brown paper, you know, like pornography, they would read it secretly because it was still disapproved of by the... by the high-ups in the profession.

My Leg book did not do particularly well, and it was not expected that The Man Who Mistook His Wife For a Hat would do well. My publishers, my... who were then Summit Books, and Jim Silberman was the publisher and editor, and he, too, has been a very important influence in my life. He can spot the heart of a piece quicker than anyone else – he’s... he always gets a bull's eye – but Summit had a small printing of 10,000 books, or whatever. And then, suddenly, and almost before any reviews appeared the book was on the bestseller list of The Times, and Summit had to do another printing, and then another and another and another and another. And the book soared, and this was my first experience of having a... a best-seller and becoming known.  And so that, perhaps, was fame in... in a more tangible sense.

One aspect of this, and this has continued and, in fact, increased continually over the years, I got hundreds of letters from people... I got dozens of letters from people who asked about Jimmy, the Lost Mariner. They said, 'How is he, you know, how’s he doing? Give my best to him'.  And it was extraordinary how, you know, how people... so Jimmy was felt as a human being and... and I did give some of their regards to him, though, of course, because he was amnesic he... he forgot it straight away, although, perhaps he got some good affect from this, I think he probably did. So there were many, many letters and then many invitations.

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: Awakenings, The Man Who Mistook His Wife For a Hat, Summit Books, James Silberman

Duration: 3 minutes, 2 seconds

Date story recorded: September 2011

Date story went live: 02 October 2012