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Dr. Oliver Sacks: Mind Over Muscle

In 2003, the late doctor sent M&F editor-in-chief Shawn Perine a letter about his life as a powerlifter.

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Oliver Sacks

One night back in 1983 I was flipping channels when my attention was caught by a program on PBS. It was a roundtable discussion between some of the greatest minds of the day, in which they volleyed their views on the meaning of life back and forth—as much a sparring match among intellectual giants as it was an elucidating discourse. I was transfixed. But of the seven men assembled at that round oak table in a darkened room, it was the quietest among them who intrigued me most. That man was Oliver Sacks, recognized as the real-life neurology doctor whom Robin Williams portrayed in the 1990 film Awakenings. Every word from his mouth was precise and reasoned, and whereas several of his counterparts seemed to enjoy sparring, and even engaging in a little chest puffery, Dr. Sacks remained the calm in the center of a storm of intensely profound ideas.

About a decade later I was reading a post by bodybuilding legend Dave Draper on his excellent site (davedraper.com) in which he recalled training in the early ’60s in Venice Beach, CA, with a monstrously strong medical student from London whose name was Oliver Sacks. I immediately reached out to Dave to ask if this could possibly be the same Dr. Oliver Sacks of Awakenings, A Glorious Accident, and a host of best-selling books. Dave hadn’t seen or spoken with his old lifting buddy in many years, but he suspected that the motorcycle-riding, carousing, bull-strong Brit of his youth may well have been the same man as the esteemed author/physician/professor of today. I told him I was going to do some research and let him know.

A call to the NYC office of Oliver Sacks, M.D., answered by his longtime assistant and collaborator Kate Edgar, resulted in a hand-typed letter in my mailbox a few weeks later, which is transcribed here. I received it from Dr. Sacks in 2003, and to this day it’s among my most treasured possessions.

On Sunday, Aug. 30, of this year, Oliver Sacks died at his Manhattan home of liver cancer. He was 82. When I learned of his illness I slotted his letter to me into this issue in the hope that the powerlifter in him would get a kick out of it. Now it must serve as a form of tribute to a man who embodied strength, both physical and mental. In the letter that follows, Dr. Sacks’ passion for training rings loud and true, and as much as he has been heralded for his groundbreaking work in neuroscience, so, too, should he be recognized as a historically great lifter and gym rat (with all the love and respect that term holds for me).

I am grateful to Dr. Sacks for taking the time to pen this letter, and for inspiring me to always be curious. His example of a creative, open mind coupled with a powerful body is one that I aspire to every day. Oliver Sacks, M.D., was a physician, an author, and a professor of neurology at the NYU School of Medicine. The New York Times has referred to him as “the poet laureate of medicine.”

He is best known for his collections of neurological case histories, including The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat, Musicophilia: Tales of Music and the Brain, and An Anthropologist on MarsAwakenings, his book about a group of patients he treated in the 1960s who briefly emerged from catatonic states, inspired the Academy Award–nominated feature film starring Robert De Niro and Robin Williams.

Next: Dr. Sacks’ Letter

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