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My self-destructive nature


My hypochondriac imaginings
Oliver Sacks Scientist
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I suspect of the three of us, I’ve been the one most haunted by fantasies of... of illness and degeneration. Long before I got my actual tumour, I used to imagine a tumour called a ‘guiltoma’ which would only occur to people with a bad conscience; and the slightest thing would cause absurd hypochondriasis – they were partly jocular. I’d have a nosebleed – you have a nosebleed – for me it was because I had angiosarcoma of the nasal mucosa, such a thing has never been recorded: I would be the first... I would be the first.

[Q] Do you think that’s because of reading all these gruesome medical textbooks?

I think the gruesome medical textbooks fed hypochondria, you know, as a... but I think it’s... I’m not even sure that hypochondria is the... is the right word; I’m not a sort of... there’s no chronic invalidism, but I expect something terrible to happen at any moment – I’ve been expecting this for... for the last 75 years. Occasionally something terrible does happen, although not that terrible. A few months ago I... I broke a hip here. I stumbled over a box of books and... but that wasn’t too terrible. What was terrible was breaking the leg, and worse, when I was alone on a mountain in Norway, and no one knew where I was.

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: Norway

Duration: 2 minutes, 5 seconds

Date story recorded: September 2011

Date story went live: 02 October 2012