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My last meeting with Thom Gunn and his death


A scary first experience of steep Filbert Street, San Francisco
Oliver Sacks Scientist
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When I went to UCLA, I often on a weekend went to San Francisco. I’d always see Thom. Come to think of it, the very first time I went to visit him, I... I almost killed myself.

He lived at that time on Filbert in San Francisco, and Filbert is a street which goes ‘brmm’ like that, as some people do. I had my motorbike. Fortunately it was a scrambler motorbike, very high off the ground. I didn’t realise that Filbert was like a cliff, and I went over the edge, and... and really did a ski jump. I did 15 foot in the air and came down with a crash which would have ruined any ordinary motorbike. The scrambler somehow took it, but I think when I arrived at 975, Thom’s door, I... I was ashen and shaking. The... some of his early poems, one of them in particular, some of his early poems are about doomed motorcyclists and so I certainly played... played the part.

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: Filbert Street, UCLA, San Francisco, Thom Gunn

Duration: 1 minute, 14 seconds

Date story recorded: September 2011

Date story went live: 02 October 2012