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.


'I am just a chronicler and a describer'


The story of Migraine and amphetamines
Oliver Sacks Scientist
Comments (0) Please sign in or register to add comments

I found I loved seeing patients by myself as much as I'd hated the neuropathology and neurochemistry. I found the patients extraordinarily interesting and moving. And I'd originally thought, you know, what can be duller than migraine, a headache, but it was an enormously rich... and, indeed, I still feel this love more than 40 years later going... I've gone back to the subject a little bit in my present book.

But none of the published papers satisfied me, and then one weekend I went to the rare book section of our library and I took out a book on megrim, as it was called in the 19th century, a book by a man called Edward Liveing, which was written in the 1860s, published in 1873. Weekends were my drug time, in particular my amphetamine time; I was heavily and dangerously into amphetamine then. I think I'm lucky to be alive because, you know, I would throw down 100 tablets, or whatever, and that would triple one's pulse, I'd run a pulse of 200 for the weekend – double one's blood pressure.

But I would be in a state of... in a sort of ecstatic orgasmic state, and... which I would devote to sexual fantasy. I had to go in for sexual fantasy a lot, because there wasn't much in the way of sexual reality. But that weekend, instead of my usual fantasy, I opened this book on megrim, and with a sort of catatonic concentration you can become very emotionless sometimes on amphetamine, I read this huge book and the feeling of drug ecstasy somehow flowed into the book. I... I thought it was perhaps the most interesting book I'd ever read. I started to think that this was mid-Victorian medicine and science and... at its best, along with rather beautiful writing, and, also social conscience that made me think of Mayhew's books on London's Labour and [the] London's Poor. And... and as I was reading this book, I got a sort of hallucination or vision, an absurd one, of migraine shining like a star, or possibly an archipelago of stars in the neurological heavens. I can't explain this or make sense of it now, but I also got a strong feeling that a book... another book like that should have been written.

I thought: now it's the 1960s, who will be the Liveing of our time? And... a dozen names came disingenuously to mind followed by a very loud internal voice which said, 'You silly bugger, you're the man'. And previously, whenever I'd taken a huge dose of amphetamine, I'd always sort of become manic and ecstatic, I would come down feeling terrible and with a sense of great folly and with nothing to show for the experience. This time when I came down the feeling persisted. I xeroxed Liveing's book, and I started on a book of my own, and in a way that launched me.

I think one of my reasons for turning to amphetamine was that I... I felt that mental life and creative life had... had ceased, in fact had ceased for 20 years. But then writing Migraine things started up again, and basically apart from a little pot once in a while, sort of the drug, the big drugs, the heavy drugs have... are long in the past. But I do feel... I think something like this would have happened anyhow, but I think it was more dramatic and acute with the amphetamine.

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: Migraine, 1873, 1860s, Edward Liveing

Duration: 4 minutes, 54 seconds

Date story recorded: September 2011

Date story went live: 31 October 2012