The Island of the Colorblind

The Island of the Colorblind Oliver Sacks

Neurologist Oliver Sacks is probably best known for his book The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat. With a focus on rare neurological diseases and maladies, Sacks was deeply interested to hear about the Island of Pingelap. Nearly 10% of the population is achromatopic – unable to see colors of any sort. This extremely rare condition is seen in very few places in the world. Sacks travels with an ophthalmologist friend and an achromatope Knut Nordby from another small enclave in of achromatopes in Denmark. The three make a harrowing trip into the heart of Micronesia to meet and study these rare folks. At first shy of the strangers, the Chamorro folks soon welcome when they realize Norby is one of them.

The second half of the book covers Sacks’ trip to Guam to study another rare, though much more deadly, disease called lytigo-bodig. Similar in nature to Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s, large numbers of residents of Guam suffer from palsy, frozen muscles and other bizarre symptoms. Some sufferers sit frozen for hours, staring into space. However, the family and friends know to “wake” them from their torpor they need only sing, talk, toss a ball at or otherwise startle them into movement. Even more bizarre than the afflictions and lack of cause, but no one born after 1952 on the islands currently suffers from the disease.

Blended with Sacks’ study of these bizarre afflictions is a fascinating narrative of the history of Micronesia, politics, neurology, folk wisdom and a great deal of botany with particular focus on the ancient cycad, thought though never proven to be the cause of lytico-bodig. The addition of Victorian botanical plates are a wonderful and fantastic touch, making the book seem more like a turn-of-the-century travelogue than a modern book on medicine.