Oliver Sacks the eminent neurologist and writer garlanded as the “poet laureate of medicine”, has died at his home in New York City. He was 82.
The cause of death was cancer, Kate Edgar, his longtime personal assistant, told the New York Times, which had published an essay by Sacks in February revealing that an earlier melanoma in his eye had spread to his liver and that he was in the late stages of terminal cancer.
The London-born academic, whose book Awakenings inspired the Oscar-nominated film of the same name, wrote: “A month ago, I felt that I was in good health, even robust health. At 81, I still swim a mile a day. But my luck has run out – a few weeks ago I learned that I have multiple metastases in the liver.”
Sacks was the author of several books about unusual medical conditions, including The Man Who Mistook His Wife For a Hat and The Island of the Colourblind. Awakenings was based on his work with patients treated with a drug that woke them up after years in a catatonic state.
Sacks came across the patients in 1966 while working as a consulting neurologist for Beth Abraham hospital, a chronic care hospital, in the Bronx. Many patients had spent decades in strange, frozen states, like human statues. He recognised them as survivors of the encephalitis epidemic that had swept the world from 1916 to 1927, and treated them with a then-experimental drug, L-dopa, which enabled them to recover.
These patients became the subjects of Awakenings, which later inspired a play by Harold Pinter – A Kind of Alaska. The 1990 film version, starring Robert De Niro and Robin Williams, was nominated for three Oscars including best picture.
A figure of the arts as much as the sciences, Sacks counted among his friends WH Auden, Thom Gunn and Jonathan Miller. As tributes were paid from across the world, Michiko Kakutani, the New York Times writer, praised his ability to make connections across the disciplines.
She wrote: “[He] was a polymath and an ardent humanist, and whether he was writing about his patients, or his love of chemistry or the power of music, he leapfrogged among disciplines, shedding light on the strange and wonderful interconnectedness of life – the connections between science and art, physiology and psychology, the beauty and economy of the natural world and the magic of the human imagination.”
Writing in the Guardian in May, author Lisa Appignanesi spoke of Sacks’s ability to transform his subjects into grand characters.
“For all their lacks and losses, or what the medics call ‘deficits’, Sacks’s subjects have a capacious 19th-century humanity,” she wrote. “No mere objects of hasty clinical notes, or articles in professional journals, his ’patients’ are transformed by his interest, sympathetic gaze and ability to convey optimism in tragedy into grand characters who can transcend their conditions. They emerge as the very types of our neuroscientific age.”
Sacks was an avid chronicler of his own life. In his memoir, Uncle Tungsten, he wrote about his early boyhood, his medical family, and the chemical passions that fostered his love of science.
He was sent away from London to escape wartime bombing and endured bullying at boarding school. Feeling “imprisoned and powerless”, he developed a passion for horses, skiing and motorbikes. He got his first motorbike when he was 18. On the Move, the second instalment in his memoir, pictured a youthful, leather-and-jean-clad Sacks astride a large motorbike, not unlike Marlon Brando in The Wild Ones.
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.
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. Sacks had nearly 1,000 journals and more letters and clinical notes upon which to draw for his autobiography.
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.
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.
Sacks remained active almost until the end. In April, he published articles about the autonomic nervous system in the New York Review of Books, about Spalding Gray and brain injury in the New Yorker, and about a cleaner world in the New Yorker’s Talk of the Town.
When he revealed that he had terminal cancer, Sacks quoted one of his favourite philosophers, David Hume. On discovering that he was mortally ill at 65, Hume wrote: “I now reckon upon a speedy dissolution. I have suffered very little pain from my disorder; and what is more strange, have, notwithstanding the great decline of my person, never suffered a moment’s abatement of my spirits. I possess the same ardour as ever in study, and the same gaiety in company.
“I am … a man of mild dispositions, of command of temper, of an open, social, and cheerful humour, capable of attachment, but little susceptible of enmity, and of great moderation in all my passions.” – © Guardian News & Media 2015