A NEUROLOGIST'S JOURNEY THROUGH A CHEMICAL BOYHOOD
A NEUROLOGIST'S JOURNEY THROUGH A CHEMICAL BOYHOOD, UNCLE TUNGSTEN: MEMORIES OF A CHEMICAL BOYHOOD BY OLIVER SACKS 337 PAGES. ALFRED A. KNOPF. 2001.
Oliver Sacks, MD, is probably the most successful popularizer of medical science since Paul de Kruif. Incredibly enough, he achieved this stature by writing about neurology, long considered the driest and most Olympian of the medical specialties. His preferred strategy is to concentrate on the phenomenology of complex disorders of higher brain function, putting himself in the patient's place with penetrating sympathy and making the medical history into a fascinating, coherent story.
Now laypersons throughout the world can be expected to know about visual agnosia, idiot savants, Korsakoff psychosis, and other obscure maladies formerly known only to neurologists. Together with mad cow disease, Dr. Sacks has put neurology on the map.
In Uncle Tungsten, his most recent book, Dr. Sacks has left his familiar neurological territory and taken the risky step of writing about his childhood obsession. Between the ages of 10 and 14, he became obsessed with 19th century-style chemistry and the sensual properties of elements and chemical compounds.
In the course of telling that story, he weaves in bits of personal and family history, at the same time providing an intellectual history of the development of chemical science from the 18th to the early 20th century. The result is a highly unusual amalgam of autobiography and popular science. It is a quirky, somewhat self-indulgent scheme for a book, but with his usual captivating literary skill, Dr. Sacks brings it off.
A FAMILY OF PHYSICIANS
Oliver Sacks was born into a large middle-class English family of immigrant Jewish origin. His parents were both physicians whose medical office was in their London home, and both came from large families with many intellectually gifted and fascinating members. I found these glimpses of English Jewish family life quite absorbing. His two older brothers both became physicians, and as a child, Oliver was stimulated (if a bit put off) by reading forbidden medical textbooks.
With such a heavy exposure to the medical profession, it was natural that, by age 14, he found himself heading for a medical career. But the way he tells it, he made this choice almost by default, having somehow lost enthusiasm for his first great love: chemistry.
Perhaps the story of how he developed a later enthusiasm for medicine and neurology – a second love, as it were – will be told in a forthcoming book. In the present book, he revisits the memories of his old obsession rather like a man turning over the mementos of a doomed adolescent affair.
EXPOSURE TO TUNGSTEN
After a four-year interlude during the Second World War, during which he was exiled to a horrific Dickensian school in order to escape German bombing, the 10-year-old Sacks was introduced to chemistry by his Uncle Dave (called Uncle Tungsten by his family), who owned an incandescent light bulb factory that made tungsten filaments.
The child was fascinated by the sensual properties of tungsten, and this esthetic interest soon spread to other metals. Before long he had his own little chemistry laboratory at home, in which he carried out old-fashioned chemistry reactions described in a 19th century textbook donated by his uncle.
As his personal acquaintance with chemical elements and compounds grew, he continued to focus on their color, tactile properties, odor, and reactive behavior, all of which Dr. Sacks describes in the manner of a 19th century naturalist writing about plants or butterflies. Indeed, this is the essence of his childhood obsession with science: a combination of esthetics and a naturalist's interest in specimens and classification.
Dr. Sacks comes closest to stating this in a footnote quoting from the chemist von Liebig: “[Chemistry] developed in me the faculty…of thinking in terms of phenomena.”
Perhaps sensing that the book needed to convey more than a history of childhood enthusiasms, Dr. Sacks undertakes, starting with chapter 10, a highly readable history of the development of scientific chemical knowledge, which he presents as a series of short biographies of great men and women, from Lavoisier to Davy, Mendeleev, and Curie.
As in previous writings, Dr. Sacks uses the case history technique to tell a fascinating story, in which personal details are closely interwoven with intellectual concepts. He succeeds in the way Jacob Bronowski did in his outstanding television series, “The Ascent of Man,” simultaneously humanizing science and teaching the reader about the nature of scientific progress.
Dr. Sacks portrays his prepubescent self as making the same intellectual journey from Lavoisier to Curie, based largely on his own extracurricular reading. That may have happened, but I can't help suspecting a bit of literary license here.
Readers may wonder why Uncle Tungsten doesn't explain how Dr. Sacks became a neurologist. It is true that the book comes to a halt when he enters adolescence and loses his interest in chemistry.
At first glance, chemistry seems very distant from an interest in anatomical localization and disorders of higher cortical function. But perhaps there is a connection, in the approach he takes to both chemical specimens and patients with neurologic oddities.
An esthetic approach to individual cases, a desire to convey the essence of the subject “from within,” and a need to explain and categorize are evident in both the enthusiastic child and the neurologist-author – plus the ability to tell a whacking good story.