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How Musicophilia expanded


The profoundest case of amnesia ever seen
Oliver Sacks Scientist
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At the same time as all this was happening, I had occasion to see a remarkable patient in England, a very eminent musician, and a pioneer in the rediscovery of renaissance music, who had himself developed a crippling amnesia following an attack of encephalitis, of herpes encephalitis. Jonathan Miller had told me about this man, and had made a wonderful film [Prisoner of Consciousness] with this man. A film which brought out the contrast between his perfect preservation of musical abilities, his ability to conduct a concert, to turn to... to every member of the orchestra and, you know, bring out their things appropriately, who could play the organ, and improvise at the organ, but who couldn’t… but who within five seconds of ending a symphony would have no memory of having ended it.

A man with perhaps the profoundest amnesia of anyone ever recorded, and I had not seen this man, but I had had some contact over the years and some correspondence with his wife. And it... I think it was in the summer of 2005, when I was in England, that I went to see Clive, Clive Wearing, and coming back I wrote about him, and writing about him combined a lifelong interest in music with my interest in... in amnesia. I had already written about two people with amnesia. The Lost Mariner in The Man Who Mistook his Wife for a Hat, and Gary, The Last Hippie, the hippie musician in Anthropologist on Mars, and now I was seeing someone highly intelligent, a cultivated, witty man, with the profoundest amnesia anyone had ever seen. 

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, Anthropologist on Mars, The Last Hippie, The Lost Mariner, Clive Wearing, Jonathan Miller

Duration: 2 minutes, 40 seconds

Date story recorded: September 2011

Date story went live: 02 October 2012