Memories of a Chemical Boyhood
By Oliver Sacks
Knopf -- 337pp -- $25
Four years ago, neurologist Oliver Sacks got a little bar of tungsten in the mail from his "chemist friend," Nobel prize winner Roald Hoffmann. That souvenir got Sacks thinking about his boyhood enthusiasm for chemistry and his Uncle Dave, who, during his childhood, ran a lightbulb factory called Tungstalite in Farringdon, England. Sacks began jotting down a few pages that soon became a couple of million words, he says, of which 5% made it into Uncle Tungsten: Memories of a Chemical Boyhood. Whole chapters on beer and rare earth elements were abandoned, but a wealth of personal details survived the cuts.
That's fortunate, as this bittersweet memoir really shines when focused on Sacks' recollections of growing up as the youngest son of two doctors in war-torn London. In Uncle Tungsten, the author of such poignant case studies as Awakenings and The Man Who Mistook His Wife For a Hat turns his keen sense of observation on himself. What he sees is an eccentric, curious, sometimes withdrawn boy taking refuge in the mysteries of the chemical world. His passion helps sustain him through four years of school canings and isolation as an evacuee living apart from his parents in rural England during World War II.
But chemistry wasn't just a coping mechanism. Sacks delighted in the stinks, bangs, and thrills of experiments inspired by such heroes as Madame Curie, Humphry Davy, and his own uncles. You might say it was in his blood. His maternal grandfather, who fled Russia to avoid conscription by the tsarist army, was a Hebrew scholar, mystic, mathematician, and inventor who made boots and shoes for a living. He passed on a passion for science to his 18 children. Oliver's mother was one of the youngest girls. She was also an anatomist, surgeon, and gynecologist.
Life at the Sacks' sprawling London house was a fascinating if somewhat chaotic affair. Relatives would stage loud Zionist meetings and sometimes stay for months at a time. The author's father, a family doctor "not given to emotion or intimacy," would take young Oliver along on house calls. His insatiably curious mother, we're told in one disturbing section of the book, brought home the cadavers of severely deformed babies for Sacks to dissect. Those that were not born dead she sometimes drowned to put out of their misery. She also arranged for 14-year-old Oliver to dissect the body of a 14-year-old girl, like some macabre coming-of-age ritual.
Sacks combines this narrative with recollections of his youthful explorations in chemistry--the time he ignited three pounds of pure sodium on a bridge, his experiments with radioactive thorium. Although skittish about releasing too many personal details--his four years at boarding school take up only 12 pages, and his brother's psychosis gets only a few paragraphs--the author examines his subject with the same unflinching yet compassionate gaze that he turns on the patients in his other books. What emerges is a mind and a life as fascinating as any that Sacks has ever profiled.
By Diane Brady