a story lives forever
Sign in
Form submission failed!

Stay signed in

Recover your password?
Form submission failed!

Web of Stories Ltd would like to keep you informed about our products and services.

Please tick here if you would like us to keep you informed about our products and services.

I have read and accepted the Terms & Conditions.

Please note: Your email and any private information provided at registration will not be passed on to other individuals or organisations without your specific approval.

Video URL

You must be registered to use this feature. Sign in or register.


The profoundest case of amnesia ever seen


'Take the eye if you must, but leave the rest of me alone'
Oliver Sacks Scientist
Comments (0) Please sign in or register to add comments

I was especially fascinated by Stereo Sue because the business of... of stereoscopy and how we construct depth... was a lifelong interest of mine, and very... and also was very strongly developed in me. I had spent years with stereo photography and stereo cameras, and all that. But... so in the summer of '05, I think, I wrote my piece on Sue, but in December of '05 something happened to me. It was a Saturday. I had gone for a swim – my usual swim – and then I thought I would go to the pictures, to the movies. But I had barely sat down, the movie, the main movie hadn’t started – there were previews – when I became aware of... of an incandescence and a, sort of, scintillation to my left... very, very brilliant, and I first thought it might be a migraine scintillation.  I’d had visual auras, but it was unlike any migraine phenomenon I’d ever had, and I soon realised that it was not something in my brain but something in my eye, something in my right eye. I realised too that part of the visual world was missing for me, that there was, a wedge of vision, was missing at about 10 o’clock.

I was very, very frightened. I... I wondered if I was having a... a haemorrhage into the eye. I wondered if I’d detached a retina. I wondered if I might go completely blind in that eye, if something might then happen in the other eye. And at the same time I said to myself, ah, it’s nothing, it’s just one these things, and I sat at the cinema for a while, although I couldn’t attend to the film. Basically, I was testing my visual field the whole time, and then I burst out, hoping that the real world would give me full vision, but there was still something missing. And I phoned my ophthalmologist friend, Bob, who had always been my colleague in all sorts of visual adventures, and this time he said – he lived far from Long Island – he said, 'Get yourself to an ophthalmologist pronto, ASAP!' And I got to an ophthalmologist that afternoon, and he was at first very genial, and sort of collegial, and then he looked into my eye and I could feel him stiffen a little bit. And his voice was a bit different, and he was now seeing me as a patient and not a colleague.

He said he saw some darkening in the retina, and something behind the retina. He said, 'This could be a haematoma, it could be a tumour'. He said, 'Let’s think of the worst-case scenario' – the worst scenario, of course, being a malignant tumour. Well, I... this diagnosis was confirmed two days later when I saw a specialist in ocular tumours, and especially ocular malignancies. When... the diagnosis... the diagnosis was made for me, or was presented to me visually, there was a big model of an eye, and the surgeon, Abramson... Dr Abramson, put an object like a wrinkled black cauliflower, a little black cauliflower, into the model of the eye. And that for me stood for melanoma, and melanoma in my medical student days was sure and prompt death, the most malignant of malignant tumours, and I felt at that moment… in England, judges put on a black cap when they are going to give the death sentence, and that black cauliflower meant the same for me. Abramson immediately read my mind, and said that melanomas in the eye did not have the malignancy of melanomas elsewhere.

Well, anyhow, this was the start of a fight to preserve vision, and to kill the melanoma, or at least render it dormant. There was radiation to the eye, and later there was lasering. Some vision was preserved, but... but relentlessly, the melanoma itself and the procedures to deal with it took away more and more of my eye. I sometimes felt I had a sort of an agreement, a contract almost, with the melanoma. I had a good talk to the melanoma. I said, 'You can take the eye if you must, but you leave the rest of me alone'. So far, the melanoma has taken my eye, but it has left the rest of me alone. As I lost vision in one eye, so among other things I lost stereoscopy, what I prized so highly and what I had written about in [Stereo] Sue. I, the chronicler of stereoscopy, an active member of the New York Stereoscopy Society, was himself being rendered... being reduced to two-dimensional, flat vision. I kept a journal of my vision, and of all sorts of procedures for, I think, probably two ... two or three years.

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: Stereo Sue, Bob Wasserman, Susan R Barry

Duration: 6 minutes, 58 seconds

Date story recorded: September 2011

Date story went live: 02 October 2012