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Seeing the deep past in plants


My first encounter with evolution
Oliver Sacks Scientist
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A foundation figure for all of us in biology and, indeed, for everyone on the planet, is Darwin. I think one of my first encounters with evolution came when I was about 10 or 11 years old in the garden of our house in London. It was high summer and bees and butterflies where everywhere, bright coloured flowers everywhere, but there was... but there was... but we had two magnolia trees and they weren’t being visited. They... they had large, slightly ill-smelling flowers and my mother told me that they weren’t being pollinated by butterflies and bees, but that they were pollinated by beetles. And I said, 'Why aren't bees and butterflies?' And she said, 'This is an ancient plant, 80 or... they started 80 or 90 million years ago and at that time, bees and butterflies didn’t exist, but beetles did'. And a, sort of, vertigo took hold of me at the idea of 90 million years, an unimaginable figure, and... and the notion that there had been worlds which didn’t have bees and butterflies, worlds quite different from our own. That... that episode sticks in my mind.

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: London, Charles Darwin, Elsie Sacks

Duration: 2 minutes, 7 seconds

Date story recorded: September 2011

Date story went live: 02 October 2012