Guiding Light

Oliver Sacks was the doctor whose bestselling books explored the strange quirks of the human brain. As the neurologist’s autobiography appears in paperback, Andre Paine reveals how Sacks’s scientific mind was shaped by a kindly uncle in EC1.

When Oliver Sacks died last year, aged 82, there were glowing tributes to the neurologist whose case histories became bestsellers. The New York Times called him the “poet laureate of contemporary medicine”. His books include The Man Who Mistook His Wife For a Hat, Hallucinations and Migraine. Robin Williams starred in the adaptation of Awakenings, which detailed Sacks’s work with patients suffering from encephalitis lethargica (sleepy sickness).

He had his own awakening as a boy in Clerkenwell. The young Sacks, who grew up in a medical family in north London, was obsessed with chemistry and became an unofficial apprentice to his uncle, Dave Landau, at 47 Farringdon Road.

“We had called him Uncle Tungsten for as long as I can remember, because he manufactured lightbulbs with filaments of fine tungsten,” wrote Sacks in his first autobiography. “His firm was called Tungstalite, and I often visited him in the old factory in Farringdon and watched him at work, in a wing collar, with his shirtsleeves rolled up… Uncle’s hands were seamed with black powder, beyond the power of any washing to get it out.”

Abe Landau, another uncle at Tungstalite, once played a part in developing Marmite. When Sacks called at the factory (now health store Antimony Balance) he would be taken around various machines and taught about metals. Of course, the dense, clinking lumps of tungsten were Uncle Dave’s favourite. Sacks first found solace in chemistry and numbers when he was sent away to a typically brutal boarding school during the war years. He conducted his own experiments and soaked up the teachings of Uncle Tungsten when he returned home from school.

“I think he delighted in having his young protégé back for he would spend hours with me in his factory and his lab, answering questions as fast as I could ask them,” recalled Sacks. Uncle Tungsten had an infectious enthusiasm for metals and minerals, and he loved showing his samples of diamonds from the Kimberley mine in South Africa.

“He saw the whole earth, I think, as a gigantic natural laboratory, where heat and pressure caused not only vast geological movements, but innumerable chemical miracles too,” wrote Sacks. In one demonstration, scheelite (one of tungsten’s ores) produced a pleasing effect when bathed in ultraviolet light.

“The dim light of Farringdon Road on a November morning, it seemed to me, would be transformed… and the luminous chunks in the cabinet suddenly glowed orange, turquoise, crimson, green,” wrote Sacks.

As well as being a lover of chemistry, Uncle Dave was an entrepreneur and believed the incandescent bulb had done more to alter human habits than any other invention. From his factory, he used to proudly point out where, in 1882, Thomas Edison had designed the world’s first public power station at Holborn Viaduct. Sacks soon became fascinated with earlier pioneers of science, including Robert Boyle, Henry Cavendish and Antoine Lavoisier. With his uncle’s guidance, he set up his own laboratory at home in a laundry room. Conveniently, it led out into the garden, so in the event of fire or noxious fumes he could fling the experiment outside.

“The lawn soon developed charred and discoloured patches, but this my parents felt was a small price to pay for my safety – their own, too, perhaps,” recalled Sacks in his book. His taste was for “the spectacular – the frothings, the incandescences, the stinks and the bangs, which almost define a first entry into chemistry”. A school report would later comment: “Sacks will go far, if he does not go too far.”

Fortunately, the dangers of radiation were understood by the time Sacks developed an interest in this area. He was particularly inspired by the pioneering research of Marie Curie, whose translated thesis was published in London in the early 20th century alongside adverts for suppliers of pure radium bromide, including A.C. Cossor in Farringdon Road. Supposedly ‘rejuvenating’ tonics containing radium were quite a craze until reports of terrible cases resulting from prolonged use.

For much of his boyhood, Sacks’s craze was for chemistry, but in his mid-teens he grew out of his excitable experiments. He studied medicine at Oxford and went on to complete a residency in neurology in San Francisco, as well as experimenting with drugs, riding motorbikes and breaking a weightlifting record in California (all covered in the revealing autobiography of his adult life, On the Move).

Sacks left London behind in the 1960s. But in naming his 2001 memoir Uncle Tungsten, it was clear the neuroscientist never forgot the kindly uncle in Clerkenwell who inspired his early passion for science.

“Uncle Tungsten” (Picador) is available now. “On the Move” is published in paperback on 25 February.