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After The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat: The deaf, Touretters and blindness


Congenital face blindness in The Mind's Eye
Oliver Sacks Scientist
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I also got different sorts of letters from people who’d read the title story of The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat, the story of a man who, because of some disease in his brain, especially the visual parts of his brain, became unable to recognise things and people and made absurd mistakes. But one of the earliest problems with him was he became unable to recognise faces. And I got many, many letters from people who’d read this and they said that they, too, had a difficulty recognising faces, but they had never become ill, this had been lifelong with them, and it was also the case with their sister and their father. And I was very surprised at this because I had never heard of a congenital inability to recognise faces, although I had long secretly suspected that I had such an inability myself. And when I went to visit my brother in Australia, I found that he... he was as defective as I was in recognising faces, and his wife had to prepare him for each patient because otherwise he might fail to recognise someone he’d seen the day before.

But finally, these letters which had started in 1986, moved me towards writing a piece on congenital face blindness in myself and in millions of others, and in outing the whole subject and trying to defuse it, which I did under the title of... of Face-Blind in The Mind’s Eye. But there was a 25-year gap then between the first letters and the final dealing with things.

I’m very quick in some ways, and very, very slow in... in others. When writing comes it may come with a rush, but the... but there are long, long incubations and there must be many, many things which are going on underneath all the while. It didn’t actually occur to me, I think, to write on face blindness and you... when Knopf said that the manuscript I’d given them was too short, could I write anything else, you said, 'What about face blindness? This has been in and out of your mind for 25 years’, and then I wrote it. I think, however, the suggestion might have had to come from the... from the outside, at least from you.

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 Man Who, The Mind's Eye

Duration: 2 minutes, 55 seconds

Date story recorded: September 2011

Date story went live: 02 October 2012