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Thinking of Schubert's early death


'That's the wrong X-ray, or I'm a dead man'
Oliver Sacks Scientist
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My brother David got a cancer when he was 68. He was... he was a very vigorous 68-year-old, and... he was also a physician but someone who lived a very active social life, something of a dandy, and... and very fit. He ran every morning and it was there that he found himself getting a bit short of breath, and finally he got a chest X-ray taken, and when he saw that X-ray he thought: either this is the wrong X-ray or I’m a dead man, because he could see that the pleura covering the lungs was studded with metastases. It wasn’t the wrong X-ray. He said he felt death like an express train, you know, rushing along towards him. He was... he was terribly angry and upset and very understandably. Though again, I think the last days were peaceful, but to some extent this was in contradiction, or rather, I’m sorry, in contradistinction to what happened with my oldest brother, who lived in Australia, whom I was very close to, who got a cancer – cancer of the pancreas – at 80. And Marcus was very sad, he had just retired from general practise and was ready to go round the world, and he was a marvellous linguist and he was going to go to... to Greece and Japan and everywhere. He said... when he got the cancer he said, 'I should have done this before, one shouldn’t wait, you never know what will happen'. Mercifully he had no... no pain, but he... he declined over a year... I want to say gracefully, I mean he wasn’t happy about it, but... but it was not the agitation and the raging. Perhaps this had something to do with his personality, perhaps it had something to do with the fact that he was 80 and retired, and to some extent felt he... he had completed his life, whereas David was still in... in the rush and fury of life.

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: Australia

Duration: 2 minutes, 59 seconds

Date story recorded: September 2011

Date story went live: 02 October 2012