Pam Wernich

Oliver Sacks and His Chemical Boyhood: A Matter of Wonder and the Wonder of Matter

September 14, 2016

In his enchanting childhood memoir Uncle Tungsten. Memories of a chemical boyhood (2001), master neurologist and supreme clinical narrator Oliver Sacks makes vivid the magic of chemistry through the senses of a boy, deeply intuitive and irrepressibly curious. The lab fizzings, vaporizations and emissions of his youth, along with radiant flame surges, experimental bangs and tireless probings, make compelling reading. His childhood brimmed with the magic of metals and minerals, the dazzling reactions and transformations of substances in their arranged (or chance!) encounters. The memoir charts his immersion in the wonders of chemistry and in the curious process of photography. He was enchanted too by electricity, the miracles of spectroscopy, lighting and luminosity. The memoir gleams with remembered marvels, and Sacks’s wonderful bent for humour runs through it all.

It was on his mother’s lap that the young Oliver learned a more scientific version of the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow. She would take off her wedding ring and allow him to feel its gold-weight, explaining that it was heavier than lead, how it never tarnished and was inviolable. Or she would let him marvel at the glint of the diamond in her engagement ring. She’d invite him to feel it ice-cold to the touch, and she'd show him how efficiently it scratched glass. She’d explain how diamonds were a special form of carbon, not altogether unlike the coal they used in the fireplace. How intriguing this was for him! Thus began small Oliver’s fascination with metals and minerals (2001: 3-4).

His boyhood was spent in London in the years before the Second World War. Both his parents were doctors, his father a general practitioner and his mother a gynaecologist. He always knew that he’d become a doctor too, as did his brothers. The Sacks residence was a rambling Edwardian place in north-west London, large enough for him to have his own laboratory - a natural follow-on from his first kitchen-table scientific adventures. And then, for a while, he lived in ‘exile’, enduring a spell at a boarding school where atrocious punishments were meted out. He writes also of the long and difficult absence of both his parents during the war, when called for medical duty. But for the most part, the memoir details his rapturous love affair with the chemicals that provided a certain order and certainty to the world, and endless amazement.

Oliver Sacks had quite a number of familial ties with South Africa. Our diamonds and gold enticed several of his aunts and uncles. These were people similarly captivated by minerals and metals, and they came to South Africa as consultants to the mines during the Gold and Diamond Rush in the late nineteenth century. Some of them returned to England, with those remaining becoming a large extended family of cousins in South Africa. His beloved Uncle Dave – known fondly as Uncle Tungsten because he manufactured light bulbs using filaments of fine tungsten wire – was a man thoroughly under the spell of minerals and metals, and long after his return to England he retained in his mineral cabinet some diamonds from our Kimberley mines. Oliver remembers looking at these as a boy.

Oliver’s Aunt Rose had also come to South Africa in those alluring days of hope in gleaming stones and lustrous metals. She was a photographer in the days of the great big cameras that used glass plates, and she captured in photographs the early life on our South African mines and the towns and taverns that boomed around them. 

As a boy Oliver was charmed by the ‘sweet science’ of photography. For him it was a metaphor for perception, memory and identity, and a miniature version of science at work (2001: 136). He believes it was very likely a combination of photography and his migraines that angled his later interest in the direction of neurology. He experienced a kind of deconstruction with migraines – in the changes of vision and colour, of depth and movement. It was yet another sort of perceptual trickery, different from the optical deceptions of photography. Much later, in his work and writing as a neurologist, bringing “the ostensibly strange into the realm of normality” was indeed one of Sacks’s shining accomplishments, a triumph extolled by the Daily Telegraph when Hallucinations was published in 2012.

Young Oliver was rather fortunate to have had a remarkably interesting collection of aunts and uncles, all innovators in their own right. (One uncle had a part in developing Marmite, but they did more important things too.) They were marvellous intellectual mentors, producing the right books at decisive moments and supplying sought-after lab substances and equipment, all of it eagerly put to use by the young boy on his quest to grasp the fascinations of the universe. “Every month or so,” recalls Sacks (2001: 70), “I stocked my lab with visits to a chemical supply house far out in Finchley, housed in a large shed set at a distance from its neighbours (who viewed it, I imagined, with a certain trepidation, as a place that might explode or exhale poisonous fumes at any moment). I would hoard my pocket money for weeks – occasionally one of my uncles, approving my secret passion, would slip me a half crown or so – and then take a succession of trains and buses to the shop.”

At around his fifteenth year his zeal for chemistry began to fade. The quantum concepts had emerged and the sureness of chemistry as he had known it, felt lost. It was time to leave the once sacred matter behind.  “Was it, then, the end of chemistry? My own intellectual limitations? Adolescence? School? Was it the inevitable course, the natural history, of enthusiasm, that it burns hotly, brightly, like a star, for a while, and then, exhausting itself, gutters out, is gone? Was it that I had found, at least in the physical world and in physical science, the sense of stability and order I so desperately needed, so that I could now relax, feel less obsessed, move on? Or was it, perhaps, more simply, that I was growing up, and that ‘growing up’ makes one forget the lyrical, mystical perceptions of childhood, the glory and freshness of which Wordsworth wrote, so that they fade into the common light of day?” (Sacks: 2001: 314)

Oliver Sacks became a distinguished neurologist and academic, with a shining gift for writing about the nervous system: its organic afflictions, odd twists and anomalies, and how these affected the people he worked with. The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat contains a number of case studies of patients who had peculiar neurological disorders. The person of the patient and their experience is always in the foreground of his clinical accounts. Far from being bland appraisals of the afflictions he encountered in patients, his writings make the human dimension of our having bodies with brains, nerves and sensory receptors exceptionally vivid. His mother seems to have modelled this. She was fond of telling clinical stories, and they always took full account of the people concerned. “The medical, for her”, writes Sacks, “was always embedded in a life” (2001: 234). What a gift she imparted to him!

The memoir is radiant with charm, thoroughly incandescent. It is a tribute to the implacable curiosity of boyhood and provides a beautiful insight into a great mind and spirit, tender and sharply evolved, not only in matters neurological, but across a broad orbit of disciplines. 

Oliver Sacks died after an illness just a little more than a year ago, in August 2015.

His memoir 
is available at the Meadowridge Public Library, Cape Town.


Sacks, O. (1986). The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat. London: Picador.
Sacks, O. (2001). Uncle Tungsten. Memories of a chemical boyhood. London: Picador. 
Sacks, O. (2012). Hallucinations. London. Picador.


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About Me

I work one-to-one with adults, offering supportive counselling for a range of issues, including (but not restricted to) grief and bereavement, gay/lesbian issues, life transitions and sticking points in relating to self and others. My approach values collaborative dialogue, open-minded listening, and appreciative recognition of resilience and new vitality. In addition to offering counselling, I also teach Eugene Gendlin's Focusing to small groups and to individuals wanting to learn valuable personal growth and self-help skills.
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