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Darwin's residence in Down House


Darwin: 'a very beloved figure'
Oliver Sacks Scientist
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In all the botanical books, in the orchid book, the word ‘delight’ appears again and again and you feel Darwin’s joy in description and understanding. Victor Weisskopf the physicist wrote a book called The Joy of Insight and you feel the joy of insight all the way... and also this flexibility... Darwin would... would entertain what he called ‘fools’ hypotheses’, absurd hypotheses of every sort, all the while they would crowd on him. But then, as he said, he would always test them and he would throw out the fool’s ones. One has to be able to have a multiplicity of ideas, even knowing that some of them must be absurd, provided you test them afterwards. I... I wrote about another aspect of Darwin in Musicophilia, which was his inability to recognise any music. I don’t know what Emma, his wife, thought about this, but she had been a pupil of Chopin, no less, and she played the piano every evening. Darwin enjoyed music, but he couldn’t recognise it, he... he had amusia.

But anyhow, Darwin is a very beloved figure. I think I have dozens, maybe hundreds of books either by him or, of course, about him. There was a huge burst of such books a couple of years ago at the double anniversary and my friend, Eric, who... who was at first an academic zoologist, then became an antiquarian bookseller specialising in 19th century biology and especially in Darwin. And, in fact, it was Eric who was asked if he could reconstruct Darwin’s own library at Down House and which... which he did do with... in a remarkable way.

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 Joy of Insight, Musicophilia: Tales of Music and the Brain, Charles Darwin, Emma Darwin, Victor Weisskopf, Frédéric Chopin, Eric Korn

Duration: 2 minutes, 17 seconds

Date story recorded: September 2011

Date story went live: 02 October 2012