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Marie Stopes' botanical work and its influence on me


Marie Stopes' Ancient Plants
Oliver Sacks Scientist
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There was also a book which my mother had been given by a colleague of hers, Marie Stopes, in the 1920s as my mother moved towards gynaecology and obstetrics. Marie Stopes had become famous – or maybe infamous – for very frank books on human sexuality and contraception and enduring love and passion and all that. But she had given my mother a book from one of her earlier incarnations. The book was called Ancient Plants and this, again, gave... gave an extraordinary feeling of time far, far beyond the human, biblical, historical scale. Marie Stopes herself was a... an intriguing figure. Women scientists of the first rank were not common in England in the 19th century. She had to get her doctorate in Germany, but she then became very eminent in the field of fossil botany. I think a special chair was made for her in Manchester. And she wrote many books including Ancient Plants and I actually use the frontispiece of Ancient Plants in my own book, The Island of the Colour Blind. And then... well, I once went... I once went to a meeting of fossil botanists in Seattle and there was a lot of talk about Marie Stopes who was very much a founder figure of the discipline. And people said, 'What happened to her?' They said there were her great monographs on the cretaceous flora and then she disappeared. Well, she disappeared into world notoriety as a champion of women’s rights and open sexuality.

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 Island of The Colour Blind, Seattle, Marie Stopes, Elsie Sacks

Duration: 2 minutes, 6 seconds

Date story recorded: September 2011

Date story went live: 02 October 2012