I was born during the second world war in Stuttgart, the capital of Swebia, as the first of two children. My father, Bertold Sakmann, was the director of a theatre, the third son of a physician whose family had lived in southern Germany for several generations. My mother, Annemarie Sakmann, was a physiotherapist and was born in Bangkok, the second child of a Prussian physician who served as doctor to the King of Siam and was the founder of the first hospital in Siam.
During the first half of my childhood I grew up in Lindau, on Lake Constance, in a completely rural environment. There I went to elementary school, before returning to Stuttgart where I completed my Abitur at the Wagenburg Gymnasium. My only real interests at school were the physics lessons. At home I spent most of my time designing and building model motor and sailing ships as well as remote control aeroplanes. It was generally assumed that I would become an engineer. In the final year of school however I learned about cybernetics and its possible application to biology. Cybernetics fascinated me, because it seemed to me that living organisms could be understood in engineering terms.
Since I could not make up my mind between physics and biology I enrolled at the medical faculty of Tübingen University. The first two years in medicine offered a broad spectrum in biochemistry and physiology and I decided to do my doctoral thesis in electrophysiology which seemed to be closest to engineering. At the time it was common practice to study at several different medical schools and I attended schools in Freiburg, Berlin and Paris. My decision to finish medical studies in Munich was largely dictated by a beautiful young lady whose attention I was desperate to catch in Tübingen, though without initial success. Today Christiane is my wife and we have two sons and a daughter. Christiane is a highly successful ophthalmologist specializing in pediatric ophthalmology. For most of the time since we have been married I have been known in Göttingen and Heidelberg as the "eye doctor's husband".