Oliver Sacks and the Mystery of Osteolexosis

by Q. William Bacon

Osteolexosis (OL) is a sudden, catastrophic neurological dysfunction of the elderly that leaves the body of the victim completely paralyzed, frozen in the contorted shape of a letter of the alphabet.

In 1952, Cedars-Sinai Hospital dedicated an entire ward to the increasing number of victims of the paralytic disease.  The disease had no cure or treatment, and yet the hospital sought to give its patients a life of purpose and dignity. Even though the patients were completely paralyzed, it was thought that they may still see or hear. 

So, the staff carried the patients thanklessly through a normal routine of activities and amusements in as respectable a manner as possible. In particular, the staff never drew attention to the fact that the patients looked like letters. A patient was never identified by mentioning their resemblance to a letter. Also, patients were never situated side-by-side, for fear of forming a word of even two letters.   The patients were always persons, never letters.

At this time, a young doctor named Oliver Sacks joined the staff of the neurology department.  The enthusiastic newcomer soon became frustrated with the hospital’s passive, hopeless approach to OL.  At night, alone in his small book-lined office, he reconsidered the disease anew.

OL is a disease not of the joints but of the brain. It was thought that a patient’s body was contorted into a letter shape because those shapes are the earliest, most commonplace, and most important forms held in the brain. As the brain seizes up, it retreats to the forms it knows best. Oliver wondered, If a patient’s knowledge of letters was still operating, were other reading skills still operating?

He devised a bold treatment plan. But the plan went completely against the philosophy of the OL ward. If his treatment did not work, his nascent career would be over.

One night, he secretly had seven patients transported to the physical therapy studio. He arranged the patients shoulder-to-shoulder in front of the mirrors. The arrangement formed a misspelled word. One patient, Abigail, was the incorrect letter.

Oliver sat and waited. The bewildered orderlies occassionally peeked into the room. Oliver waited through the night. His hopes sank with the full moon.

Oliver was awakened by the voice of his angry department head. Oliver fixed his glasses and blinked at the patients arranged in the room.   They formed a word that was correctly spelled. In the night, Abigail had managed to move her limbs.

Oliver arranged a new word, with Abigail again the single misspelled letter.  Doubtful staff members watched the seemingly motionless patients.  After several hours, Abigail had corrected the misspelling.

Oliver swept about the room rearranging another misspelling with Abigail.  As the entire neurology department stared, Abigail repositioned her limbs right before their eyes. Then she whispered, “Oh, that feels much better.” Abigail had returned.

The Sacks method of therapy by progressive respelling quickly became the standard treatment for osteolexosis.  It was so successful that the disease was considered cured by 1955.

When accepting the 1982 Nobel Prize for Medicine, Oliver said, “The capability for language is something we are born with, not something we learn, and language remains even when we lose track of everything we’ve learned. Language is in our bones, and it can lead us back to our right mind.”