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How I got to know Stephen Jay Gould


Filling in for Stephen Jay Gould in Natural History
Oliver Sacks Scientist
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I had become very close to Stephen Jay Gould, I will... I’ll come back to this. Stephen Jay Gould had a monthly column in the magazine Natural History which he had maintained, I think, for 25 years. He had written 300 articles, whether he felt well or ill, and there were times when he was almost fatally ill, he would have an article every month without fail in Natural History.  But he died early in 2002, and I was asked to fill in for him, and write an article about astrobiology, so called... life on other planets, possibilities, what might it be like. It was an assignment I enjoyed because I have a taste for science fiction and I thought of all the Wellsian novels and the War of the Worlds and The First Men in the Moon, and so forth.

And... but there was a new editor, not Steve’s editor. Steve’s pieces had never been messed around with by an editor, they really went straight through. Whereas, this new editor was very pernickety, and... and also, very reluctant to send me a proof. He said, 'We don’t use proofs'. I said, 'But, you know, how can we work together if I don’t have a proof?' I was then sent a proof and we agreed, or I thought we had agreed on what was there, what was to be said, but when the article came out it had some sentences, whole sentences which made me cringe because I hadn’t said them, I would never put them in this way, and they’d been stuck in by the editor. I... I was considerably upset at this.

I think, now, this particular editor has matured and mellowed and is probably very good. It was an unfortunate coincidence that I got him at what he felt was... was a very vulnerable time, and had probably... was submitting a highly idiosyncratic article in place of... in place of the Stephen Jay Gould articles which had appeared in the previous 300 issues. So, perhaps, the circumstances were special, but I thought it dishonest to change my words or put in his own words after we had agreed. But... so there are editors and editors.

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: Stephen Jay Gould

Duration: 3 minutes

Date story recorded: September 2011

Date story went live: 02 October 2012