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Book Reviews   |    
Uncle Tungsten: Memories of a Chemical Boyhood
Reviewed by Sheldon Benjamin, M.D.
Psychiatric Services 2003; doi: 10.1176/appi.ps.54.7.1050
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by Oliver Sacks; New York, Alfred A. Knopf, 2001, 337 pages, $25

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Perhaps more so than any other work by Oliver Sacks, Uncle Tungsten: Memories of a Chemical Boyhood draws the reader into the world of voracious learning in which Sacks lives. Reading Sacks' other books—The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat, Awakenings, An Anthropologist on Mars, Migraine, A Leg to Stand On, Seeing Voices, The Island of the Colorblind, and Oaxaca Journal—one imagines the formative experiences that led to the author's unusual penchant for observation and description. In Uncle Tungsten we see a young Oliver Sacks go after chemical knowledge with obvious joy, developing personal relationships with the elements, each evoking its own memories of family members, museums, accidents, and incidents. In Sacks' gallery of chemical heroes were Humphry Davy, who discovered laughing gas; John Dalton, who worked with atoms; and Dimitri Mendeleev, who developed the periodic table.

Sacks' maternal uncle Dave, whom Sacks called Uncle Tungsten, was a manufacturer of tungsten filament lightbulbs and the son of a Russian Jewish immigrant scholar who had corresponded with the Wright brothers. He was the uncle whom young Oliver went to with his myriad questions about chemistry when his obstetrician mother—herself something of a chemistry aficionado—could not satisfy him. Sacks' 18 maternal aunts and uncles—and some of his paternal family as well—had been drawn to science. Thus Sacks grew up among physicians, mathematicians, chemists, biologists, metallurgists, sociologists, and teachers.

In Uncle Tungsten we learn of Sacks' boyhood exile to a rural boarding school during the bombing of London in World War II, of his preadolescent fascination with "stinks and bangs" that led to his learning about the chemistry of esters and of sulfur compounds, and of his childhood memories of accompanying his neurologist-cum-general practitioner father on house calls. Painful memories, too, are revealed, such as his mother's macabre practice of bringing home malformed fetuses to dissect with 11-year-old Oliver—his parents had arranged for him to begin human dissection in an anatomy lab at the age of 14. Given these more bizarre elements of his upbringing, it's no wonder Sacks understates his feelings about having had his career chosen for him by his parents.

Drifting from chapter to chapter—paralleling the author's associative organizational scheme—meeting illustrious relatives, learning esoterica about the chemistry of everyday life, and even encountering an octopus the young Sacks tried keeping as a pet in a hotel bathtub, the reader is startled to learn, on reaching the final chapter, that this autobiography concludes at the author's 14th year. Can it really be that the 300 or so pages of insights, reflections, and verbal caricatures contained in this unique volume encompass only Sacks' memories through the age of 14? What were the early-life ingredients in the recipe for the renaissance physician raconteur that is Oliver Sacks? A fascinating family that supremely values learning? A voracious appetite for knowledge? Extraordinary powers of observation and recall? More than a little suffering? All of these play a role. But perhaps the most important ingredient is the ability to appreciate experience in the moment. Oliver Sacks became a neurologist who could recognize not only the syndromes but also the unique experiences of his patients. In Uncle Tungsten: Memories of a Chemical Boyhood we see the birth of this sensitivity.

Dr. Benjamin is associate professor of psychiatry and neurology at the University of Massachusetts Medical School in Worcester.




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