This appeared in Garrison Keillor’s “The Writer’s Almanac.”

It’s the birthday of writer and neurologist Oliver Sacks (1933) (books by this author), best known for his lyrical explorations of the brain’s strangest mysteries in books like Awakenings (1973), The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat (1985), and Musicophilia (2007).

Sacks was born in London. He was the youngest of four boys and both his parents were doctors. When the Blitz broke out during World War II, his parents sent Sacks and his brother Michael to a rural boarding school in the Midlands. Sacks described the experience as horrendous, saying he and his brother “subsisted on meager rations of turnips and beetroot and suffered cruel punishment at the hands of a sadistic headmaster.” When he finally returned home, he was so traumatized that he sought refuge in his basement chemistry lab, immersing himself in science and determined to become a doctor. After graduating from Queen’s College, Oxford, he immigrated to America for an internship in San Francisco.

Sacks found himself in San Francisco in the heyday of the 1960s and quickly acclimated to the easygoing culture, entering weightlifting competitions, befriending the poet Thom Gunn, and taking a motorcycle trip to the Grand Canyon with the Hell’s Angels. He wrote about his experiences in San Francisco in his memoir, On the Move: A Life (2005), in which he also discussed the realization that he was gay, and his decision to remain celibate for 35 years until he found his life partner.

By 1965, Sacks was in New York, where he found work at a hospital in the Bronx. He’d hoped to enter research, but he didn’t have the knack for it. He said: “I lost samples. I broke machines. Finally, they said to me, ‘Sacks, you’re a menace. Get out. Go see patients. They matter less.’” He tried to write a book called Ward 23 about his experiences, but thought it was terrible and burned it. His first book was called Migraine (1970), and his good friend, the poet W.H. Auden, gently counseled him to improve his writing style, telling Sacks to “be metaphorical, be mythical, be whatever you need.”

Sacks became fascinated with a group of patients who suffered from a form of encephalitis known as “sleeping sickness.” They were catatonic and had been in the hospital for decades. He began to give them doses of L-dopa, which was just beginning to be used for patients suffering from Parkinson’s. The L-dopa roused them from their stupor, into a world they didn’t recognize, but which often delighted them. Sacks said, “There was a great joy and a sort of lyrical delight in the world which had been given back.” He wrote about them in the book Awakenings (1973), which later became a movie starring Robin Williams (1990). The book was a hit, and Sacks kept mining the case histories of his patients, calling his books “neurological novels.”

In The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat (1985), Sacks explored the case of a man who suffered from visual agnosia and could no longer recognize his wife. That essay was later adapted into an opera, which premiered in London in 1986. Sacks also wrote about Jimmy G., a submarine operator who lost his ability to form new memories due to Korsakoff’s syndrome. He could remember nothing of his life since the end of World War II, even things that had happened a few moments ago. He also wrote about Madeleine J., a blind woman who thought her hands were “useless lumps of dough.” Sacks’s books were best-sellers, but he had his critics. One disability activist objected to his use of real case histories, calling Sacks “the man who mistook his patients for a literary career.”

But Sacks shrugged off the criticism. He said: “I had always liked to see myself as a naturalist or explorer. I had explored many strange, neurological lands — the farthest Arctics and Tropics of neurological disorder.” Sacks’s other books include Seeing Voices (1989), An Anthropologist on Mars (1995), and The Mind’s Eye (2010). There are millions of copies of his books in print and he’s responsible for introducing the general public to conditions such as Tourette’s and Asperger’s.

By the time he died of cancer in 2015, Sacks was receiving more than 10,000 letters a year from readers. He said, “I invariably reply to people under 10, over 90, or in prison.”

Oliver Sacks said: “I would like it to be thought that I had listened carefully to what patients and others have told me, that I’ve tried to imagine what it was like for them, and that I tried to convey this. And, to use a biblical term, bear witness.”