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Prominent British neurologist and writer, Oliver Sacks (1933-2015), was in residential and kinship care for four years from the age of six. 

Oliver Wolf Sacks was born in London, the youngest of four children born to Jewish parents, both medical professionals. Oliver’s large extended family, many of whom were scientists, was a feature of his childhood. 

When war broke out in September 1939, Oliver and his older brother, Michael, were evacuated to the village of Braefield, Cambridgeshire where their day school was reconstituted as a makeshift boarding school. 

But the school… was a travesty of the original. Food was rationed and scarce, and our food parcels from home were looted by the matron. Our basic diet was swedes and mangel-wurzels—giant turnips and huge, coarse beetroots grown for cattle… The horribleness of the school was made worse for most of us by the sense that we had been abandoned by our families, left to rot in this awful place as an inexplicable punishment for something we had done (Sacks, 20). 

Moreover, the headmaster became violent: 

I sometimes wondered if I was his “darling,” the one selected for a maximum of punishment, but in fact many of us were so beaten we could hardly sit down for days on end (Sacks, 20). 

During his four years at Braefield, Oliver’s parents visited only rarely—and he did not remember the visits at all—and he spent holidays with his Auntie Len in Cheshire. Then, in 1943, Oliver’s school was closed. He was not told why and had never complained about the beatings or the food (although apparently others had). 

Oliver was then sent to a regular boarding school, St Lawrence College, but only lasted a term. When his parents went to visit, they realised he was in a bad way—by then he was making up stories including that his parents had discarded him and he had been taken in by wolves—and took him home. 

Oliver was well-nurtured in the sciences at home, becoming an amateur chemist at the encouragement of his Uncle Dave. However, he studied medicine—in line with his parents’ expectations—at Queen’s College, Oxford University, receiving his medical degree in 1958. 

Sachs left for the United States during the 1960s and spent most of his career working there, beginning with consulting work at Beth Abraham Hospital in New York in 1965. 

Oliver Sachs’ first published book was Awakenings (1973). The book tells the stories of people who had encephalitis lethargica from a 1920s epidemic and was made into a film in 1990 staring Robin Williams and Robert De Niro. 

The Man who Mistook His Wife for a Hat, published in 1985, established an international audience for Sacks. The twenty-four essays in the book explore case histories where patients have particular neurological conditions, such as visual agnosia, or the inability to recognise even familiar faces.  

In addition to writing many books, Sacks also served at the New York University School of Medicine and at the Columbia University Medical Centre in New York City. He was awarded a CBE (Commander of the Order of the British Empire) in 2008. 

References: 

Draaisma, Douwe. “Oliver Sacks (1933-2015).” Nature, vol. 525, no. 7568 (2015):188.  

Sacks, Oliver. Uncle Tungsten. Memories of a Chemical Childhood. New York, Alfred A. Knopf., 2001.  

“Oliver Sacks British neurologist and writer.” Encyclopaedia Britannica, 2020. https://www.britannica.com/biography/Oliver-Sacks 

Image available here.