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Filling in for Stephen Jay Gould in Natural History


Writing for the academic journals
Oliver Sacks Scientist
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I was interviewed by The Wall Street Journal, and... and I was quoted as saying, 'It’s impossible to publish a case history now, medicine is all statistical', or something like this. I then got a letter from the Editor of JAMA, The Journal of the American Medical Association, saying that he had read this in The Wall Street Journal and it was not the case, and to show that it was not the case he invited me to submit a case history. So I said, 'Fine', and I submitted to him the case of the colour-blind painter. When it arrived they said, 'Of course, this will need peer review'. I was a bit taken aback because this hadn’t been mentioned to me before, they said, 'Can you suggest any reviewers?' And I mentioned Richard Gregory as one reviewer and another reviewer. I said of both of them, these are people of very broad visual interests and... and spacious mind and generous temperament, and they carry a lot of intellectual weight.

I said, on the other hand, do not send it to Doctor X, who will feel that I’m trespassing on his territory and will throw a conniption if he gets this, he’ll boil me alive. Well, I then got sent... I then got sent an annihilating comment, or series of comments and I phoned up the editor, oh, it was one of the sub-editors, and I said, 'I cannot imagine that Richard Gregory, even if he was psychotic or delirious would write such a hateful thing, and could be so mean-spirited'. I said, 'I trust it was not Doctor X', and she didn’t answer, and then I said, 'Okay, I understand'. And she got very upset and she said, 'Look, we’re not supposed to... to disclose the names of reviewers', so I said, 'Don’t worry, you haven’t disclosed anything'. But I will say that this is all passed now, and Doctor X and I are good friends, but I found that disconcerting.

And... on the whole I... but I do continue to submit occasional things to... to medical journals or scientific journals. I had a letter with Ralph Siegel in Science, and I was very pleased when Brain, the very prestigious journal which goes back to 1870 or the 1880s published an article of mine, an article which was not peer-reviewed and which was not attacked and which was in my own style, in fact, it was really the... the primordium of Musicophilia

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: The Wall Street Journal, JAMA, Brain, Richard Gregory

Duration: 3 minutes, 40 seconds

Date story recorded: September 2011

Date story went live: 02 October 2012