As you’ve probably heard by now, the eminent neurologist and writer Oliver Sacks has passed away at the age of 82. Cancer, the great equalizer in death, was responsible for his passing. As he recounted to the New York Times in February, a melanoma in his eye had spread to his liver.
British-born, he made his literary splash in the world with his eye-opening book in 1973, Awakenings, which was later turned in an Oscar-nominated film starring the Robert De Niro and the late Robin Williams. Other Sacks’ best-selling books include The Man Who Mistook His Wife For A Hat: And Other Clinical Tales and An Anthropologist On Mars: Seven Paradoxical Tales. These are two books that anyone interested in psychology or mental health should read.
People love a good story and Sacks was the consummate story-teller. Sacks made the case study accessible to everyone, drawing insights from his real-life patient stories, and then sharing them with the world. He used eloquent narrative to share not only an interesting story, but to explain the science behind the condition in an accessible manner.
The Guardian has a good recount of his life:
Born in London in 1933 into a family of physicians and scientists – his mother was a surgeon and his father a general practitioner – Sacks earned his medical degree at Oxford University (Queen’s College), and did residencies and fellowship work at Mt Zion Hospital in San Francisco and at UCLA. He lived in New York since 1965, practising as a neurologist.
He also loved to chronicle his own life in countless personal journals. He wrote about his life in multiple books as well, including this traumatizing episode when he shared his sexual orientation with his mother:
The memoirs reveal that his mother said: “I wish you had never been born”, when she learned about his homosexuality. He writes of a few love affairs, his road trips and obsessional bodybuilding. […]
Growing up, he witnessed the growing torment of his schizophrenic brother and his treatment with drugs. Appignanesi said the seeds of Sacks’s later affinity with patients undoubtedly in part lies in that experience. […]
His work earned him the garland of “poet laureate of medicine” from the New York Times and in 2002 he was awarded the Lewis Thomas prize by Rockefeller University, which recognises the scientist as poet.
But his ground-breaking book, Awakenings, catapulted him to recognition in his field. It was based on working with patients as a consulting neurologist in a chronic care hospital in the Bronx in 1966. He thought that their catatonic, frozen state looked a lot like an encephalitis lethargica epidemic from the 1920s. He treated them with a then-experimental drug called L-DOPA, and they “awoke” from their catatonia.
Many, many neurologists attribute their career choice to Sacks’ influence and writing. His impact in humanizing a sometimes esoteric and technical field cannot be underestimated. He was an inspiration to an entire generation of scientists, psychiatrists, psychologists and neurologists.
The world is a little less today due to his passing.