Every so often, someone well known passes away and collectively we think “wow, the world lost a really important voice today.” The most recent losses that conjure that feeling, for me at least, were Robin Williams and Maya Angelou – Mr Williams for the way he made us feel when we watched him perform and Ms Angelou for the way she helped us all understand humanity.
Most people probably do not know who Dr Oliver Sacks was, but the famous neurologist and author touched the lives of countless individuals. Thousands of scientifically and medically minded students undoubtedly read his book The Man Who Mistook His Wife For a Hat during their college or graduate studies – it’s one of the few books from my undergraduate years that I still own.
Sacks is probably most well known for his 1973 memoir Awakenings. The book chronicles his efforts to use the drug L-Dope to bring patients out of a persistent catatonic state – a drug that has become critically important in the fight against Parkinson’s Disease. The book was turned into the well known movie by the same title that premiered in 1990 featuring Robert De Niro and yes… Robin Williams.
In his books, Sacks had an impeccable way of turning his patients and their conditions into eloquent (and sometimes humorous) stories, or as he liked to refer to his works as “pathographies”. He managed to portray his case studies as characters who were able to transcend their conditions, conveying optimism even in the light of tragedy, and creating amazing stories despite the clinical and medical portrayal of “losses and deficits”. Oliver Sacks afforded us a view of the human mind and brain in the same way that Angelou offered up the human soul.
But Sacks probably wrote it best about himself. In February of this year, Sacks wrote an Op-Ed for The New York Times titled “My Own Life“, written shortly after he learned of his terminal cancer diagnosis. This man truly was a genius, and we were lucky to have him in our world for a little while.
I cannot pretend I am without fear. But my predominant feeling is one of gratitude. I have loved and been loved; I have been given much and I have given something in return; I have read and traveled and thought and written. I have had an intercourse with the world, the special intercourse of writers and readers.
Above all, I have been a sentient being, a thinking animal, on this beautiful planet, and that in itself has been an enormous privilege and adventure.
Sacks died earlier today after a nine year battle with melanoma. He is survived by his partner Bill Hayes.