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Oliver Sacks
Oliver Sacks

Sept. 5, 2007

Oliver Sacks
Joins Columbia University

Special from The Record

Oliver Sacks, the best-selling author and renowned neurologist who has been described as “the poet laureate of medicine,” has joined Columbia University.

Sacks will be a professor of clinical neurology and clinical psychiatry at Columbia University Medical Center and also will be a Columbia Artist, a new designation at the University. He will continue to see patients at the neurological and psychiatric institutes and also will be involved in training students. His appointment was effective July 1.

Sacks will give his first Grand Rounds lecture to the faculty and students of the Department of Psychiatry on Sept. 7. In his new appointment, Sacks becomes a one-man embodiment of the multidisciplinary scholarship that has been a priority of Columbia President Lee C. Bollinger. As Bollinger told The New York Times last week, this exemplifies the University’s effort to bridge the gap between the study of neuroscience and other disciplines in which scholars work to understand human behavior, including economics, social science, law and the arts.

Sacks comes to Columbia after 42 years at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine, where he was a clinical professor of neurology. While he describes himself as “a relatively solitary figure,” in recent years, he grew more interested in working with colleagues and eager “to return to some of the teaching I loved and of which I haven’t had much lately.”

Related links

Oliver Sacks Joins Columbia Faculty as 'Artist', The New York Times, Sept. 1, 2007 (login required)
The Mysteries of Music, The Record, March 19, 2007 (pdf)
Sacks on Music and the Mind, The New Yorker, July 23, 2007 (audio)
Columbia Launches Neuroscience Center in With the Largest Gift in University History, March 20, 2006 (with video)

His new position will be “sort of an intermediary between art and science, although that sounds awfully grandiose,” Sacks said. In coming to Columbia, he will pursue his longtime interest in schizophrenia, and in that vein, he plans to see patients and consult with Columbia’s experts in the fields. Jeffrey A. Lieberman, the Lawrence E. Kolb Chairman of Psychiatry at Columbia’s College of Physicians and Surgeons and himself a specialist in schizophrenia, said he and his colleagues are “thrilled” at Sacks’ appointment. “We are looking forward to collaborating with him to elucidate mental illnesses through his writing. Our psychiatry trainees, and those in neurology as well, will greatly benefit from his insight and experience.”

Indeed, Sacks has many admirers at the University. “He writes beautifully, and thinks extremely well about the brain,” said University Professor Eric Kandel, a Nobel laureate in medicine who strongly encouraged Sacks’ move to the University. “I thought he would be ideal for Columbia,” Kandel said, adding, “This is like a candy store for him.” Recently, Kandel and Sacks together interviewed a woman who had musical hallucinations. “He does not do quantitative science, not in the conventional sense, he picks up on themes,” Kandel said. “He often starts with a neurological problem which has interesting psychological implications.”

The London-born, Oxford University-educated Sacks, 74, discussed his new job on a recent morning. He wore a blue Columbia T-shirt and sipped from a Columbia mug. “In an odd way I really sort of skirted and flitted around academia for the last 40 years,” he said. He became a writer, in part, because he’s incapable of seeing a patient or scientific phenomenon without wanting to know the story behind it. “For me, interest in science has been inseparable from stories.”

Although he has had no formal writing training, “apart from the occasional itinerant meetings with writing classes,” he said, Sacks is the author of 10 books, most of them best-sellers; Awakenings was turned into a movie starring Robin Williams and Robert De Niro. His latest book, Musicophilia: Tales of Music and the Brain, will be published next month. Excerpts have appeared in The New Yorker, where he is a contributing writer, along with Columbia’s Nicholas Lemann, dean of the Journalism School, and Orhan Pamuk, who won last year’s Nobel Prize in literature and holds an appointment in Middle East and Asian Languages and Cultures.

Sacks’ move to Columbia is another example of how arts and sciences can work together. Several years ago, Gregory Mosher, director of Columbia’s Arts Initiative, heard from a mutual friend that Sacks might be interested in exploring a role at Columbia. Mosher made some calls and before long the idea of Sacks’ move to Columbia took on momentum. Sacks’ “ability to cross over the arts and cultural life and scientific life will be wonderful,” Mosher said. “He doesn’t divide these in his brain. It’s part of who he is.”

– Written by Bridget O'Brian. Photograph by Eileen Barroso.