Oliver Sacks, MD

Oliver Sacks MD, FRCP began working as a consulting neurologist for Beth Abraham Hospital in the Bronx. He encountered some fascinating cases and writes about them in a way that is both compelling and full of empathy. He describes the seriously bizarre characteristics of patients suffering a range of conditions from Tourette’s syndrome to autism, parkinsonism, musical hallucination, epilepsy, phantom limb syndrome, schizophrenia, retardation, and Alzheimer’s disease.

Now that does not sound a barrel of laughs but his humanity and utter fascination in his patients is nothing like as dry as it may initially seem. At Picador books I had previously designed the cover for Awakenings which I cannot find but will add later (software permitting). That was made into a film with Robert de Niro and Robin Williams and tells the true story of a number of patients suffering persistent coma who Sacks diagnosed as survivors of a global pandemic that lasted from 1913-26. He administered a new drug called L-Dopa (you couldn’t make it up). They all awakened to a short-lived but euphoric state.

The Man Who Mistook his Wife for a Hat is about some other extraordinary patients. Particularly those with ‘object blindness’. In the absence of Dr Sacks medical training I understood this as a problem, not with vision, but with the connection from eye to brain. One man could not recognise the the left side of objects. Confronted with a pizza he would eat all the right-hand side but say he was still hungry. Rotating the pizza for him 180 degrees he ate the other half contentedly.


Another man was totally puzzled when given his own glove and asked to identify it to Dr Sacks. Defeated in this task he called it a leather pouch with smaller leather extensions, possibly for use in carrying different denominations of coins. I found the innocence of the account poetic. However when he went to leave at the end of the session. He took his coat but neglected his hat. When reminded he tried to yank his wife’s head off her shoulders believing it to be his hat.

Object blindness? Another visual challenge in the daily life of an art director.

Belgian painter René Magritte came to mind. In particular “The Betrayal of Images” which depicts a lone smoker’s pipe with the legend, “Ceci n’est pas une pipe” beneath it (“This is not a pipe“). The point being that it is not a pipe but a painting of a pipe. What I wanted was the hat/wife link. I have done a lot of work with illustrators and I love to reach past their ‘style’ to engage their creative thinking on books they will respond or react strongly too. But on this occasion I had something specific that needed to be executed with skill and élan. I called Paul Slater. Master craftsman, good egg. And what a good job he did. Now I dislike plagiarism, and so I made damn sure we clearly credited our homage to Magritte as such on the back cover.

The book was published and was well received. It deserved it. Our efforts to communicate complex issues of neurology with apt graphic imagery worked. I mentioned how great a job Paul Slater did? I got a letter from the solicitors representing the Magritte estate who, in their zeal, thought we had used a real painting from the collection without permission. All was cool once we pointed out the fulsome credit acknowledging the great man, in fact they were pleased (In fact Paul has reminded me I wrote “Ceci n’est pas une Magritte“). Paul Slater you were just too good! Dear readers, please see the full range of Paul’s fabulous work unfettered by concept-obsessed art directors. www.cuttergallery.com


  • Magpie

    Fascinating. I read that book when it was first released. I once said I’d love to peer over your shoulder as you design (in regards to Doug Adams’ book) and this is surely the digital equivalent of such. Thanks.

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