Skip to main content

Oliver Sacks, Who Depicted Brain-Disorder Sufferers' Humanity, Dies

The prolific author–neurologist gave the world empathetic insights into disorders of the brain while also inspiring films, plays, an opera and likely many careers in medicine and brain science

“I am a man of vehement disposition, with violent enthusiasms and extreme immoderation in all my passions,” wrote Oliver Sacks six months ago in a New York Times op–ed in which he told the world that he was dying of cancer. And although he admitted to feeling an incipient sense of detachment from the transient events of the day, the renowned neurologist and peerless chronicler of the quirks and intricacies of the human brain said he was doubling down on life: “I have to live in the richest, deepest, most productive way I can.”

And that’s exactly what Sacks, 82, did before dying August 30 from melanoma that had spread to his liver. In a final flurry he completed a revelatory autobiography, On the Move: A Life, published to rhapsodic reviews in May; wrote a children’s book about the periodical table of elements (chemistry ranked among his immoderate passions); a philosophical ode to Sabbath as a day of rest; and other works, some of which will likely be revealed posthumously. His longtime assistant Kate Edgar told a New York Times reporter that Sacks, who always wrote with pen on paper, would likely die “with fountain pen in hand.”

In all his work—as a clinician and writer—Sacks applied acute powers of observation, far-ranging curiosity and compassion that reflected his personal familiarity with suffering and alienation. He said that he modeled his writing on the detailed, almost novelistic case studies that were popular in 19th-century medicine and was particularly inspired by the great, Russian neuropsychologist Alexander Luria.

Most scientists and clinicians interested in the brain tend to ponder the characteristic traits found across a population of patients with autism, Parkinson’s disease, schizophrenia and other conditions, but Sacks was fascinated by the uniqueness of individual patients and what light it shed on the human condition.

His works of nonfiction achieved the level of literary art in the way that only a handful of scientist–authors—Lewis Thomas, Stephen Jay Gould, for instance—have managed. (In fact The Rockefeller University recognized Sacks with a 2001 Lewis Thomas Prize.)

No wonder Sacks’s writing so often inspired other works of art. The title essay of his 1985 collection of case histories, The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat—about a man with a brain disorder called visual agnosia that left him unable to understand what he was seeing—inspired a 1986 opera by the same name. His 1973 book, Awakenings—which documented Sacks’s remarkable experiment using the drug levodopa (aka L-dopa) to reactivate patients who had been frozen motionless for decades by encephalitis—was the basis for a 1990 movie with the same title, starring the late Robin Williams as a character based on Sacks.

Two films and a play were inspired by essays from An Anthropologist on Mars, a 1995 collection that also did much to reframe autism as a condition of abilities as well as disabilities. The title came from a profile of the autistic animal behaviorist Temple Grandin, who used the Martian metaphor to describe how it felt to be autistic person trying to understand ordinary human behavior.

Born in London, Sacks was the youngest of four sons of two doctors (his mother was one of the first female surgeons in the U.K.), both observant Jews. It is a remarkably distinguished family. Among Sacks’s relatives are Israeli statesman Abba Eban, Nobel Prize–winning mathematician Robert Aumann and American cartoonist Al Capp.

Sacks’s 2015 autobiography revealed for the first time that he was gay and spent decades in closeted loneliness and celibacy, finding love only late in life. A remarkable athlete, he set a weightlifting record (272 kilograms in the squat press) while living in southern California and continued to swim 1.6 kilometers a day in the waters near his home on City Island in New York City into his final years.

In his youth Sacks was a motorcycle enthusiast and a serious recreational drug taker who enjoyed experimenting with hallucinogens. In one drug-fueled fantasy described in his 2012 book Hallucinations, he engaged in a long philosophical discourse with a spider on the wall.

His almost reckless passion for exploring the fringe of experience and his outsider status as both a homosexual and expatriate almost certainly contributed to his ability to understand and sympathize with his patients. That, plus his personal psychological quirks: “I am very tenacious, for better or worse,” he wrote in the autobiographical essay 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.”

It is impossible to say how many careers in neurology, neuroscience and psychology were inspired by the work of Oliver Sacks or how many people with autism, Tourette’s syndrome and baffling post-stroke syndromes found themselves represented in his artful words and empathetic insights.

In his February op-ed about facing death Sacks once again conveyed his passionate appreciation for the uniqueness of individuals, expressing for fans the very sentiments so many would feel at his passing: “When people die, they cannot be replaced. They leave holes that cannot be filled, for it is the fate—the genetic and neural fate—of every human being to be a unique individual, to find his own path, to live his own life, to die his own death.”