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

Oliver Sacks

Dr. Sacks’ Letter Begins Here:
I was introduced to weightlifting around 1956 by Olympic medalists Bennie Helfgott and Laurie Levin at the Maccabi Club in London. I had nothing of their skill or grace in acrobatic lifts like the snatch but seemed to have some potential for powerlifting. Meeting Ken McDonald at the Central Y in London—he was a tremendous squatter and deadlifter—incited me further, and I practiced straight leg deadlifts with him, going over 500 pounds a few months after I had started. (I think this is an awful, dangerous lift—it inaugurated 40 years of back problems; I wish I had never touched them!).

When I came to the States in 1960, I concentrated on powerlifting and especially squatting. I had a routine of fives—five sets of five reps with 555 pounds every fifth day—and in 1960 I got the California record for a 600-pound full squat. The most amazing lifter in San Francisco that I met was old Karl Norberg—already over 70. He used to do very strict narrow-grip bench presses with a two-second pause on the chest— warming up with 350 pounds or so. (I believe he later did a 500-pound bench press on his 75th birthday, someone told me.)

When I moved from San Francisco to Venice and Santa Monica, I met extraordinary lifters and bodybuilders —Olympic medalists Dave Sheppard and Dave Ashman, dedicated body- builders Hugo Labra and Dave Draper, and some almost out-of-the-world figures like Charlie (Chuck) Ahrens and Steve Merjanian. I never trained with Ahrens—I think Steve may have been his training buddy.

I saw the two of them together, with their 60-plus-inch chests, totally filling a VW Beetle, but I had difficulty lifting his favorite dumbbell (a 375-pound dumbbell he used for side presses) off the ground. I trained partly in the open air on the lifting platform on the beach in Venice, partly in the wonderful subterranean “Dungeon” in Santa Monica, and partly (with “Peanuts” Jim Hamilton and others) at a small home gym in Peanuts’ place. I bulked up to 280 pounds or more—drinking a gallon and a half of milk a day. Partly because there was no 225-pound category at the time and if you were large, you were either “mid-heavyweight” (up to 198 pounds) or “unlimited.” And how could a 220-pound man, for example, hope to compete against a 300-pound one?

A lot of lifters gathered at Sydney’s on Santa Monica Beach near the base of the Pier. Here, as they got pissed [drunk], their stories became more and more fantastic. One heard of deltoids like watermelons and squats of a thousand pounds. (This last turned out to be a solid fact for the incredible Paul Anderson. He was squatting with almost twice as much as anyone else’s maximum.) And as far as eating goes, we would go to a Swedish smorgasbord in Santa Monica, where one could eat as much as one wished. I think they somewhat regretted this when a bunch of gigantic and ravenous lifters/ builders came in. Dave Draper tells a wonderful story about it when he and I (he says I had a tent-like T-shirt then) and a couple of others practically denuded the smorgasbord.

This is about as much as I can tell you. Now, nearly 40 years later, I look back on those days with considerable nostalgia. We took zero steroids and had zero machines. We worked our guts out with raw weights, and I’m glad I did it (except for the deadlifts!). One gains a sort of physical confidence and strength. And, yes, a physique, which stands one in good stead and lasts for the rest of one’s life. I am forgetting a lot of names and scenes from those days, but this will have to do for now… With kind regards, Oliver Sacks.

PS – I have recently written an autobiography, Uncle Tungsten. Tungsten is my favorite metal, and (as you may know) is very dense, as dense as gold—this is 21⁄2 times as dense as steel. I used to do a little shot-putting once but always found that 16 pounds shot a bit large for my hands. But a 16-pound shot made of tungsten would be no larger than a baseball or tennis ball. I am having one made, I don’t know if it would be legal. And think how compact a gym would be, if the weights were made of tungsten, not steel.

PPS – Speaking of hands, the largest and strongest I ever saw were those of Mac Batchelor, who (at that time) tended (probably owned) a bar near Muscle Beach. Mac could twist a silver dollar in his bare hands and was the most formidable arm wrestler there had ever been. He was also a sweetie, all 320 pounds of him, with a great sense of humor and a wonderful fund of stories.

Oliver Sacks