The New York Times
AUG. 30, 2015
Dr Oliver Sacks
Oliver Sacks, the neurologist and acclaimed author who explored some of the brain’s strangest pathways in best-selling case histories like The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat, using his patients’ disorders as starting points for eloquent meditations on consciousness and the human condition, died Sunday at his home in New York City. He was 82.
The cause was cancer, said Kate Edgar, his longtime personal assistant.
Dr. Sacks announced in February, in an Op-Ed essay in The New York Times, that an earlier melanoma in his eye had spread to his liver and that he was in the late stages of terminal cancer.
As a medical doctor and a writer, Dr. Sacks achieved a level of popular renown rare among scientists. More than a million copies of his books are in print in the United States, his work was adapted for film and stage, and he received about 10,000 letters a year. (“I invariably reply to people under 10, over 90 or in prison,” he once said.)
Dr. Sacks variously described his books and essays as case histories, pathographies, clinical tales or “neurological novels.” His subjects included Madeleine J., a blind woman who perceived her hands only as useless “lumps of dough”; Jimmie G., a submarine radio operator whose amnesia stranded him for more than three decades in 1945; and Dr. P. — the man who mistook his wife for a hat — whose brain lost the ability to decipher what his eyes were seeing.
Describing his patients’ struggles and sometimes uncanny gifts, Dr. Sacks helped introduce syndromes like Tourette’s or Asperger’s to a general audience. But he illuminated their characters as much as their conditions; he humanized and demystified them.
In his emphasis on case histories, Dr. Sacks modeled himself after a questing breed of 19th-century physicians, who well understood how little they and their peers knew about the workings of the human animal and who saw medical science as a vast, largely uncharted wilderness to be tamed.
“I had always liked to see myself as a naturalist or explorer,” Dr. Sacks wrote in A Leg to Stand On (1984), about his own experiences recovering from muscle surgery. “I had explored many strange, neuropsychological lands — the furthest Arctics and Tropics of neurological disorder.”
His intellectual curiosity took him even further. On his website, Dr. Sacks maintained a partial list of topics he had written about. It included aging, amnesia, color, deafness, dreams, ferns, Freud, hallucinations, neural Darwinism, phantom limbs, photography, pre-Columbian history, swimming and twins.
Robin Williams, left, and Robert De Niro in the 1990 film “Awakenings.” The movie was based on Dr. Sacks’s 1973 book about a group of patients with an atypical form of encephalitis. Credit Columbia Pictures
“I am very tenacious, for better or worse,” he wrote in A Leg to Stand On. “If my attention is engaged, I cannot disengage it. This may be a great strength, or weakness. It makes me an investigator. It makes me an obsessional.”
He was also a man of contradictions: candid and guarded, gregarious and solitary, clinical and compassionate, scientific and poetic, British and almost American. “In 1961, I declared my intention to become a United States citizen, which may have been a genuine intention, but I never got round to it,” he told The Guardian in 2005.
Dr. Sacks first won widespread attention in 1973 for his book Awakenings, about a group of patients with an atypical form of encephalitis at Beth Abraham Hospital in the Bronx. When Dr. Sacks started his clinical career there, in 1966, many of the patients had been catatonic, locked inside themselves for decades as a result of their “sleeping sickness.”
Dr. Sacks gave them the drug L-dopa, which was just beginning to be recognized as a treatment for similar symptoms in patients with Parkinson’s, then watched as they emerged into a world they did not recognize. Some responded better than others — both to the drug and to their changed circumstances — and Dr. Sacks used his book to explore the differences and celebrate his patients’ limited rebirth.
“I love to discover potential in people who aren’t thought to have any,” he told People magazine in 1986.
Other books included the best-selling An Anthropologist on Mars (1995), about autistic savants and other patients who managed to thrive with their disorders; The Mind’s Eye (2010), about the ways people compensate for brain injuries; and three books about specific neurological conditions: Migraine (1970), The Island of the Colorblind (1997) and Seeing Voices (1989), a look at language perception among the deaf. He also wrote Oaxaca Journal, a 2002 travelogue about a trip to Mexico with the American Fern Society.
Dr. Sacks began his medical career as a researcher but gave up early, conceding that he had neither the temperament nor the eye-hand coordination for it. “I lost samples,” he told an interviewer in 2005. “I broke machines. Finally they said to me: ‘Sacks, you’re a menace. Get out. Go see patients. They matter less.’ ”
Yet even after he left research for clinical practice, he retained his scientific curiosity and his intuition for asking big questions. Years before it became fashionable to study the chemical and neurological foundations of the mind, for example, Dr. Sacks identified the need for such a field in A Leg to Stand On, where he termed it clinical ontology or existential neurology.
Dr. Sacks linked himself to the Soviet founder of neuropsychology, A. R. Luria, whom he considered a mentor. The two never met, but they maintained a long correspondence, and in 1977, Dr. Sacks wrote Dr. Luria’s obituary for The Times of London.
Dr. Sacks’s accounts of neurological oddities found a wide popular audience and were adapted for Hollywood, the theater, even opera. Robin Williams portrayed a Sacks-like doctor in the 1990 film version of Awakenings, and the novelist Richard Powers based a central character on him in his 2006 book, The Echo Maker.The 2011 movie The Music Never Stopped was adapted from The Last Hippie, one of the case studies collected in An Anthropologist on Mars. An opera based on The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat, with music by Michael Nyman and a libretto by Christopher Rawlence, had its premiere in London in 1986 and was staged at Lincoln Center in New York in 1988.
The Independent of London called Dr. Sacks “the presiding genius of neurological drama.” Reviewers praised his empathy and his graceful prose. Scientists could be dismissive, however, complaining that his clinical tales put too much emphasis on the tales and not enough on the clinical. A London neuroscientist, Ray Dolan, told The Guardian in 2005: “Whether Dr. Sacks has provided any scientific insights into the neurological conditions he has written about in his numerous books is open to question. I have always felt uncomfortable about this side of this work, and especially the tendency for Dr. Sacks to be an ever-present dramatis persona.”
In an otherwise laudatory review of The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat in The New York Times Book Review, the neuropsychologist John C. Marshall took issue with what he saw as Dr. Sacks’s faux-naïve presentation (“He would have us believe that an experienced neurologist could fail to have read anything about many of the standard syndromes”), and called his blend of medicine and philosophy “insightful, compassionate, moving and, on occasion, simply infuriating.”
Dr. Sacks often wrote about the relationship between music and the mind, eventually devoting a whole book, “Musicophilia,” to the subject. Credit Knopf
More damningly, the disability-rights activist Tom Shakespeare accused Dr. Sacks of exploiting the people he wrote about, calling him “the man who mistook his patients for a literary career.”
A skilled pianist, Dr. Sacks often wrote about the relationship between music and the mind, eventually devoting a whole book, Musicophilia (2007), to the subject. Dr. Sacks disagreed with the Harvard psychologist and author Steven Pinker’s view of music as “auditory cheesecake, an evolutionary accident piggybacking on language,” and pointed to its ability to reach dementia patients as evidence that music appreciation is hard-wired into the brain.
“I haven’t heard of a human being who isn’t musical, or who doesn’t respond to music one way or another,” he told an audience at Columbia University in 2006. “I think we are an essentially, profoundly musical species. And I don’t know whether — for all I know, language piggybacked on music.”
Referring to [Friedrich] Nietzsche’s claim that listening to Bizet had made him a better philosopher, Dr. Sacks said, “I think Mozart makes me a better neurologist.”
Dr. Sacks speaking in 2009 at Columbia University, where he taught neurology and psychiatry from 2007 to 2012. Credit Chris McGrath/Getty Images
Oliver Wolf Sacks was born on July 9, 1933, in London, the youngest of four sons of Samuel Sacks and the former Muriel Elsie Landau, who were both doctors. His father, in Dr. Sacks’s words a “moderately Orthodox” Jew, read the Bible daily, and Dr. Sacks often demonstrated a spiritual impulse in his books. But in Uncle Tungsten, his 2001 memoir about his childhood love of chemistry, he explained that the inflamed Zionist meetings his parents held before the war helped turn him away from organized religion.
In Uncle Tungsten, Dr. Sacks described how growing up in a household of polymaths fostered his interest in science.
“The thousand and one questions I asked as a child,” he wrote, “were seldom met by impatient or peremptory answers, but careful ones which enthralled me (though they were often above my head). I was encouraged from the start to interrogate, to investigate.”
When World War II broke out, his parents sent Oliver and his brother Michael to a rural boarding school that Dr. Sacks described as a sadistic travesty, rife with bullying and cruelty. “The horribleness of the school,” he wrote in Uncle Tungsten, “was made worse for most of us by the sense that we had been abandoned by our families, left to rot in this awful place.”
Dr. Sacks would take long swims around City Island in the Bronx, where he lived for years. Credit James Estrin/The New York Times
Four years later, when he returned home, he immersed himself in the refuge of his basement chemistry lab and the “eternal system” of the periodic table.
After receiving his medical degree from the Queen’s College, Oxford, Dr. Sacks moved to America in the early 1960s for an internship at Mount Zion Hospital in San Francisco, then did his residency at the University of California, Los Angeles. He embraced the culture he found in California — befriending the poet Thom Gunn, entering weight-lifting competitions and joining the Hells Angels on motorcycle trips to the Grand Canyon, adventures he wrote about in his 2015 memoir, On the Move: A Life.
In that book, he also discussed his sexual identity for the first time, describing his adolescent realization that he was gay. After several early flings, he wrote, he settled into a period of celibacy that lasted 35 years before he found love late in life. He is survived by his partner of eight years, the writer Bill Hayes.
Dr. Sacks moved to New York in 1965 for a fellowship at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine in the Bronx, and, a year later, began the clinical work at Beth Abraham that led to Awakenings. Over the years, he received many awards, including honors from the Guggenheim Foundation, the National Science Foundation, the American Academy of Arts and Letters and the Royal College of Physicians. In 2008, he was named a Commander of the British Empire.
In 1974, Dr. Sacks tore his left quadriceps while running from a bull on a Norwegian mountaintop, an injury he wrote about in A Leg to Stand On. In that book, he recalled an aunt visiting him in the hospital and telling him: “You’ve always been a rover. There are rovers, and there are settlers, but you’re definitely a rover. You seem to have one strange adventure after another. I wonder if you will ever find your destination.”
A prolific journal-keeper, Dr. Sacks compiled more than 600 notebooks. He published his essays in medical journals and magazines like The New Yorker and The New York Review of Books as well as small literary magazines like Antaeus, and he often revised them to add new information even after they had already appeared in book form. “Ah, Oliver!” he once quoted an exasperated publisher as saying. “You’d do anything for a footnote!”
For years, Dr. Sacks lived on City Island in the Bronx, where he liked to take long swims around it. More recently, he lived in Greenwich Village. But he remained ambivalent about being called a New Yorker.
“I rather like the words ‘resident alien,’ ” he told The Guardian. “It’s how I feel. I’m a sympathetic, resident, sort of visiting alien.”
Dr. Sacks preferred to be an alien in New York rather than in California, he told The Calgary Herald. “Living there was too easy and too sweet,” he said. “I needed ugly and violent, ferocious and challenging. … There is a tremendous richness of life here, Tourette’s visibly present on the streets.”
Dr. Sacks remained active well into his later years. In 2007, at 74, he severed his 42-year relationship with the Albert Einstein College of Medicine to accept an interdisciplinary teaching position at Columbia. In 2012, he returned to the New York University School of Medicine as a professor of neurology. (He had had an adjunct position there for a couple of years in the 1990s, working mostly with its Tourette’s clinic.) And despite the enormous success of his books, he never gave up his unglamorous medical practice — partly, no doubt, because it provided him with material, but also because he genuinely loved working with patients.
In 1989, interviewing him for The MacNeil/Lehrer NewsHour, Joanna Simon asked Dr. Sacks how he would like to be remembered in 100 years.
“I would like it to be thought that I had listened carefully to what patients and others have told me,” he said, “that I’ve tried to imagine what it was like for them, and that I tried to convey this.
“And, to use a biblical term,” he added, “bore witness.”
He also bore witness to his own dwindling life, writing reflective essays even in his last days. On Aug. 10, his assistant, Ms. Edgar, who described herself as his “collaborator, friend, researcher and editor” as well, wrote in an email: “He is still writing with great clarity. We are pretty sure he will go with fountain pen in hand.”
Several days later, a valedictory essay titled Sabbath appeared in The Times. In it, Dr. Sacks considered the importance of the Sabbath in human culture and concluded:
“And now, weak, short of breath, my once-firm muscles melted away by cancer, I find my thoughts, increasingly, not on the supernatural or spiritual, but on what is meant by living a good and worthwhile life — achieving a sense of peace within oneself. I find my thoughts drifting to the Sabbath, the day of rest, the seventh day of the week, and perhaps the seventh day of one’s life as well, when one can feel that one’s work is done, and one may, in good conscience, rest.”
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