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Environment & Science

RIP Oliver Sacks —His wild formative years were in Southern California

Renowned British neurologist and author Oliver Sacks, pictured in London in 1983, died Sunday of cancer. He was 82.
Renowned British neurologist and author Oliver Sacks, pictured in London in 1983, died Sunday of cancer. He was 82.
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He was a big young man with big ideas when he came to live near Muscle Beach in 1962. He loved to take solo rides to the Grand Canyon on his BMW motorcycle and he surfed off Venice. He fell in with the local bodybuilders. And after he bulked up to 260 pounds, Oliver Sacks was able to squat lift 575 pounds. The locals started calling him Dr. Squat.

Oliver Sacks lived here during his residency at UCLA Medical Center. Twelve years later, he published his first bestselling book, “Awakenings.” Sacks died last Sunday after a 60-year career as doctor, pioneering researcher and a writer who turned cases of rare afflictions into chronicles of the poetry of human existence. More than a million of his books are in print. They’ve been made into famous films, plays — even an opera.

Some of Sacks’ most formative experiences took place here in the Southland of the early ‘60s. Later, explaining why he left UCLA to work in New York, he said, “Living there was too easy and too sweet — easy, sleazy. … I needed ugly and violent, ferocious and challenging.”

But reading of his life at that time in his last published book, “On the Move: A Life,” you get the idea that there was nothing in the least easy or sweet about Sacks’ L.A. years — they were filled with ferocious challenges.

(Sacks in SoCal in the 1960s. Credit: Oliver Sacks)

He had here his early struggles with his gay identity — he was celibate from his 30s until he was 75, when he met the love of his life, to whom he dedicated his last book — along with ensuing, difficult relationships. He got into a couple of biker brawls. He had a mad drive to prove himself as a body surfer in Venice (where he dislocated a shoulder and broke a few ribs) and a Muscle Beach muscle man.

The struggle to set a state record earned him a back injury he lived with for 30 years — until his sciatica took over. “I became strong, very strong, but this did nothing for my character, which remained exactly the same,’’ he wrote. “Shy and unselfconfident.”

Oliver Sacks would find his confidence not in the gym, but in his work. Particularly with patients — he once took a terminally ill woman for a last bike ride up and down Topanga Canyon Boulevard, a foreshadowing of the benign, caring human interactions in his next job that later brought him success and fame in “Awakenings” and “The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat.” 

But he had also acquired a dangerous amphetamine addiction, and felt he badly needed a change. When he got a job offer at Albert Einstein College of Medicine in New York, he decided to take it. Although he returned to work briefly at the Salk Institute in San Diego many years later, the rest of his career was spent in New York.

He wrote, “I sometimes wonder why I have spent more than 50 years in New York, when it was the West — especially the Southwest — that enthralled me. I now have many ties in New York…but I have never felt it move me the way California did. I suspect my nostalgia may not only be for the place itself, but for youth, and a very different time, and for being in love, and being able to say, 'The future is before me.'”