Losing Oliver Sacks

Editor’s Note: This article previously appeared in a different format as part of The Atlantic’s Notes section, retired in 2021.
(Wikimedia Commons)

Neurologist, writer, pianist, swimmer, weightlifter, mountaineer, motorcycle traveler. This list of vocations characterizes the remarkable life of Dr. Oliver Sacks, who died of cancer today at the age of 82.

Born in Britain but a long-time resident of New York, Sacks is best known for his written meditations on the human brain and its peculiar defects. In his 1973 book Awakenings, later adapted into a film starring Robin Williams and Robert DeNiro, Sacks profiled a group of patients suffering from a rare form of encephalitis that had rendered them into a seemingly permanent catatonic state—only to be temporarily revived. Eleven years later, The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat introduced readers to a variety of neurological maladies endured by his patients, whom Sacks depicted with humor, empathy, and grace.

Sacks remained a prolific writer well into old age. In a December 2012 essay for The Atlantic, he described the phenomenon of hallucination:

But the fundamental reason that hallucinations -- whatever their cause or modality -- seem so real is that they deploy the very same systems in the brain that actual perceptions do. When one hallucinates voices, the auditory pathways are activated; when one hallucinates a face, the fusiform face area, normally used to perceive and identify faces in the environment, is stimulated.

For many more samples of the most notable writings from Sacks, head over to this reading list compiled by my colleague Adrienne. It includes a Fresh Air interview from 1987 in which Sacks talks to Terry Gross about the relationship between the body and the mind—especially among patients whose ability to connect the two is altered:

In May, Michael Roth described Sacks’ approach to his patients, whom he continued to treat despite literary fame and success.

Sacks, often drawing on his own suffering, doesn’t romanticize the horror that many of his patients have faced over the years. He just recognizes that “there is no prescribed path of recovery”; patients must create their own solutions to the challenges they face. Sacks has deep affinities with those poets and scientists who are at home with contingency, with the fact that our complex brains, and our complex lives, can come together in ways that we make meaningful through narrative reconstruction but that could never has been predicted in advance.

During his career, Sacks investigated his own mental health with the same rigor that he applied to his practice. In 2013, on the occasion of his 80th birthday, he published a moving account of the aging process in the New York Times. “I often feel that life is about to begin,” he wrote, “only to realize that it’s almost over.”

“I have no belief in (or desire for) any post-mortem existence, other than in the memories of friends and the hope that some of my books may still ‘speak’ to people after my death.”

Given his wide popularity and influence, this is a hope that Dr. Sacks will surely realize.