How Oliver Sacks Helped Introduce The World To Autism

Autism and its many forms may be widely discussed today, but it wasn’t until the famed neurosurgeon and writer told the story of identical twins George and Charles Fin in his book The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat.

Andrew Richard / BuzzFeed / Lowell Handler

In 1966, a young neurologist began working on a residential ward at the Bronx Psychiatric Center after serving an internship at Mt. Zion in San Francisco and a residency at UCLA. He already knew that, in addition to being a doctor, he wanted to be a writer like Freud or Darwin — a precise observer of the world who wrote literarily but with scientific accuracy. He would fill up hundreds of pages in his notebooks (with an occasional boost from methamphetamine), staying up all night in transports of inspiration. In the nocturnal underground of San Francisco where he consorted with Hells Angels, poets, leather queens, and other members of the bohemian demimonde, this bearded, burly doctor-in-training — who set a state weightlifting record with his six-hundred-pound squat — called himself by his middle name, Wolf. But now that he had moved east and left his druggie days behind him, he resumed using the name he was born with in London: Oliver Sacks.

 

In the dismal warehouse for hopeless cases known as Ward 23, he met a pair of identical twins named George and Charles Finn who had been variously diagnosed as autistic, schizophrenic, and mentally retarded. Despite the impoverishment of their surroundings, the twins carried a glory of numerical symmetry in their heads. “Give us a date!” they would cry in unison, and they were instantly able to calculate the day of the week for any date in a multiple-thousand-year span. As they executed these seemingly impossible cogitations, they would focus their attention inward — their eyes darting back and forth behind thick glasses — as if they were consulting an internal calendar that spanned dozens of millennia or more. The twins’ calendar-calculating abilities were just one aspect of their extraordinary cognitive gifts. The next time that Sacks saw the twins, they were raptly enjoying a conversation that consisted solely of numbers. George would utter a string of digits, and Charles would turn them over in his mind and nod; then Charles would reply in similar fashion, and George would smile approvingly. In a case history published twenty years later in The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat, Sacks wrote that the brothers (called John and Michael in the book) looked like “two connoisseurs wine-tasting, sharing rare tastes, rare appreciations.” At first, he had no idea what they were doing, but he took notes on these cryptic exchanges anyway.

 

“I was attracted by their uncanny twinship, their twin bonding,” Sacks told me over Lapsang Souchong tea and smoked salmon in his West Village apartment in 2012. He added that he felt a special kinship with the Finns because he had “a thing for numbers” himself. Upon consulting a book of mathematical tables at home, he was shocked to discover that the twins were instantaneously calculating six-digit prime numbers, a feat that even a computer would have found difficult to pull off at the time. The next time he visited the twins, he made sure to bring his book of tables along, so he could raise the bar by casually dropping an eight-digit prime into the conversation. Surprised and delighted, the Finns invited him to join in their ethereal exchange, seeing him and raising him with even longer primes. Yet George and Charles were incapable of performing simple multiplication, reading, or even tying their own shoes.

 


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