The wolf in a white coat

When Oliver Sacks was six years old, the Germans were bombing his hometown, London. So his parents, both doctors, sent him and his elder brother Michael to boarding school in the English Midlands for their safety.

There, the two boys encountered horror of a different sort, when they were beaten black and blue by their sadistic principal and made to subsist on a diet of turnip and beetroot.

Michael, it is thought, became schizophrenic from all that bullying. At his lowest point, he could not even make himself a cup of tea.

In contrast, Sacks the author was such a wunderkind that, unprepared, he walked into an anatomy examination at Oxford University and won its top prize.

Yet, just days before, he had failed his formal anatomy examination.

In his last book, On The Move, he said he gunned for the anatomy prize to appease his mother, renowned gynaecologist Elsie Landau, who despaired of his sloppy, dishevelled and rebellious ways.

He went on to carve a career out of observing and treating people with the oddest predilections, such as the man who mistook his wife for a hat or patients low in vitamin E whose bodies jerked uncontrollably.

His patients were scattered about such places as the Beth Abraham hospital and the Little Sisters of the Poor nursing homes in New York state. When one of his patients asked him to take her for a spin on his motorcycle, he obliged, much to her delight.

Sacks himself was the picture of health, winning weightlifting championships and whizzing more than 1,600km on his motorcycle every weekend, to get away from the drudgery of ward work.

In his salad days, he identified most with his middle name, Wolf, and was quite the hunk in sun- glasses and on a hot rod, never without admirers.

He was gay and found his soulmate, writer Bill Hayes, at the age of 77.

After just five years with him, Sacks died from a rare cancer on Aug 30 this year.

Surgeon Atul Gawande, the best-selling author of last month's Big Read titled Being Mortal, wrote in The New Yorker on Sept 14: "No one taught me more about how to be a doctor than Oliver Sacks."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on September 20, 2015, with the headline '(No headline) - SUKBIG13C'. Print Edition | Subscribe